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An Audacious Plan
Larry Downes argues a national broadband network can be built without taxpayer dollars or government overregulation.

By Larry Downes

Two hundred years ago, Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin proposed an audacious plan. The young Republic, in danger of coming apart at the seams, should build a network of roads and canals, binding the US from the Atlantic to the Mississippi. The price: $20 million.

Last spring, the Federal Communications Commission proposed the Internet equivalent of Gallatin's plan. Instead of roads and canals, the FCC is calling for construction of a national broadband network. Its goal is to provide every American -- rich or poor -- access to a high-speed connection.

Bay Area residents would benefit from universal access especially the most under-served communities, including rural, poorer, and older residents, as well as Hispanic and Native Americans. 

California initiatives in education, telemedicine, and "smart grid" technology would be accelerated. And Silicon Valley companies, of course, are leading the innovation that would fuel this next wave.

But rather than urging universal broadband to keep the U.S. competitive, the FCC has become mired in trivial battles over regulatory details only a few Washington insiders actually care about. In May, for example, the agency kicked off a pointless fight, threatening to regulate Internet access under the prehistoric rules of the 1930s telephone monopoly. The broadband plan, meanwhile, has languished.

Fortunately, we don't need the FCC to achieve universal access. That's because almost none of the plan's $350 billion price tag comes from taxpayers. In fact, network operators have spent nearly $100 billion on upgrades over the last 10 years. That investment will continue, including light-speed fiber optic cables and next-generation mobile services.

But only if the FCC stops interfering with one of the only parts of the economy that's actually working.

Northern California needs the National Broadband Plan. But nobody needs the heavy hand of Washington weighing down the Internet economy.

Albert Gallatin never sold Congress on his roads and canals.  But if we stay the course of an Internet revolution well in progress, we'll have universal access in less than 10 years.  And at little cost to taxpayers.

With a Perspective, I'm Larry Downes.

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