Why America Needs a National Broadband Plan

[Source: Business Week, by John Chambers; March 16, 2010]

Business' ability to compete—and Americans' well-being—depend on fast Internet access.  Washington can help push the U.S. ahead, says Cisco's Chambers.

If the U.S. military ranked 17th in the world, you can bet that as a nation we would make strengthening our armed forces a national priority.  Yet that's just how the U.S. stacks up against the rest of the world in terms of access to high-speed Internet connections.  The vital communications systems that make our economy work and serve as a platform for business innovation and social interactions are second-class.  Sadly, many of us have accepted that.

It's time to overcome our broadband complacency.  The national broadband plan sent to Congress on Mar. 16 by the Federal Communications Commission is critical to our economic and national security.  Without a plan, we simply cannot compete.

Some pundits have suggested that businesses are against the national broadband plan.  A Mar. 15 editorial in The Wall Street Journal said the plan is "opposed by industry."  It's true that some will reject the effort, saying it's not up to the government to set industrial policy.  Generally, I agree with that sentiment.  But we should remember that government leadership can point our nation in a direction that businesses and citizens can follow.  We need not look any further than President John F. Kennedy's call to put a man on the moon in the 1960s or the very creation of the Internet, which started as a government project until businesses seized on it as an economic and social platform.

Making broadband a national priority will help us become more competitive globally and help us see firsthand how new jobs, businesses and even new business models can be enabled by access to faster Web connectivity.

Personal Success and Job Creation

Broadband empowers our citizens and businesses.  It helps homeowners and business operators understand, control and even manage their carbon emissions.  Through smart highways, it lets workers take control of their commute.  Through connected systems, it helps people manage the information they need to be successful in an office, at home or while traveling.  It will enable citizens to get the health assistance they need virtually—whether the doctor is sitting next door or a thousand miles away.  And it eliminates barriers to quality education for all Americans.

As we gain access to ever faster broadband speeds, the relationship between businesses and their employees, customers and partners is dramatically altered.  More than 80% of 18- to 24-year-olds participate in some form of social networking.  Organizational models are being rethought as global leaders face the imperative of bringing teams together across businesses and functions as well as regions, cultures and languages.  The very question of how businesses interact with customers and suppliers is now open to debate, thanks in part to the new platforms presented by broadband and video technologies.

Our world is increasingly defined by data and video, balanced by our ability to act upon it.  We see it in our daily lives, whether it's the decisions we make at work, home or on the move, on any topic such as health, education or entertainment.  To put it in perspective, by 2015 the yearly amount of U.S. traffic on the Internet will reach the equivalent of the contents of 50 million Libraries of Congress.  Our ability to access that information, analyze it and make decisions will determine not only our personal success but also the future of our job creation within businesses, industries and ultimately countries.

A Critical Stage for Digital Networks

At Cisco, our core business is networking and providing bandwidth, so ultimately we should benefit from this plan.  However, because of broadband's impact on the larger economy, and on health care and education in particular, we would be supportive even if we did not stand to benefit.

As profound an impact as the Internet has made so far, we are still at the early stages.  Electricity was a game-changer at the start of the 20th century, but for everyone to benefit the government had to get involved.  So we are at a similar inflection point with our digital networks.

It may take years for us to grasp either the speed or the magnitude of the changes happening globally.  For example, in the next three years the number of Internet users will increase by 500 million, most of them from Asia, and the number of Internet-enabled devices will nearly double, creating new business and social dynamics.

Here is what we do know: We are only as strong as the systems and infrastructure we have.  A world that used to be defined by who ruled the High Seas is now defined by who delivers the best network connections.  The FCC has shown leadership by pointing us in a direction.  Now it's time for the rest of us to build the systems that are vital to the economic and social future of every nation.

Chambers is Chief Executive Officer of Cisco Systems, the world's largest maker of networking equipment.