Resurrecting the National Broadband Plan: Why is Washington Fighting a Winning Strategy?

I published an opinion piece today at CNET, calling on all tech stakeholders in Washington to stop the pointless quibbling and sniping about net neutrality, reclassification, and other side-show issues.  (I’m too depressed to list them here—but see “Fox-Cablevision and the Net Neutrality Hammer” for an example of just how degraded the conversation has become.)

Instead, why not focus on a positive message, one that has the potential for win-win-win-win?  For example, the National Broadband Plan, issued in March, eloquently made the case for a U.S. commitment to universal broadband adoption.  Not as a matter of gee-whiz futurism but in the interest of giving Americans “a better way of life.”

As a technology optimist, I happen to agree.  Broadband Internet provides users with much more than cute kitten videos and finding old friends on social networking sites (not that there’s anything wrong with these).  As the plan makes clear, it also gives them access to education and employment opportunities otherwise hard to find (and certainly at a much higher price), access to government services, public safety and better health care options. The Internet will play a key role in the development of a “smart” energy grid.

And as more urban countries with higher penetration rates and faster speeds have learned to their delight, the network effects of having everyone online generate all kinds of serendipitous positive returns.

Even better, achieving the goals of the NBP won’t require massive taxpayer spending, making it palatable to both Democrats and Republicans.  Most of the $350 billion it will cost to get 100 mbps speeds to 100 million Americans—a key benchmark of the plan—will come from private investment, much of it already planned for.

So moving forward with the Plan will improve the lives of ordinary citizens, make government more responsive and responsible, stimulate the economy, and help keep the U.S. competitive in a global information economy.  And it can be done without significant taxpayer expense or new regulatory overhead.

This is the feel-good story of the decade.  Come on, everybody!  We can use my barn.

It’s all in the plan. But given the strum and drang exerted over largely inside-the-beltway minutia, the NBP’s positive messages has been drowned out.

Case in point:  a recent report from the NTIA reveals that among the 25% of American homes that don’t have a single Internet user, the most frequently cited reason not to sign up for a broadband service is that they just don’t want it.  A full two thirds of the non-users, according to the report, “reported a lack of need or interest as their primary reason for not having broadband at home.”  Cost was a much lower factor.  Only four percent cited lack of availability.

It’s depressing and disappointing that so many of my fellow citizens haven’t gotten the message:  the Internet is cool, and broadband access will pay for itself many times over.

It’s also frustrating to the authors of the NBP, whose herculean efforts were unfairly and unduly overshadowed by the universal hand-wringing that followed the D.C. Circuit’s decision in the Comcast case, which came out just a few weeks later.  (For the record, NBP executive director Blair Levin agrees with legal scholars who don’t believe Comcast undermined the FCC’s ability to move forward with the plan itself:  “I think there is a lot of good stuff that can be done to advance the National Broadband Plan,” he recently told CNET’s Marguerite Reardon, “that doesn’t require any action from Congress.”)

In some sense the mid-term elections have provided the opportunity for all stakeholders—Congress, the FCC, lobbyists and advocacy groups—to resurrect the NBP and feature it as the central document in a national dialogue on technology policy.  It’s the right thing to do for the economy, and for individuals.  And in one of those rare harmonic convergences, it’s also politically expedient.  It’s positive!  It’s bi-partisan!  It’s high-tech!

So why isn’t anyone doing it?