The U.S. government may be poised to reverse course on its market-only approach to rolling out broadband and a smart electricity grid to all corners of the country, advocates said Thursday.
With a Democratic Congress and a Democratic and tech-savvy president in Barack Obama, the upcoming months will be the time to push for government involvement in building network infrastructure, said Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, a communications policy advocacy group.
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In recent years, some conservatives and broadband providers have called on the government to stay out of broadband rollout, saying such "industrial-policy" intervention could lead to a heavily regulated industry, with little competition and high prices. "I'm about to use some words that have been profane in this town for the last eight years," Scott said at a Google-sponsored forum on broadband and electricity policy. "We need an industrial policy."
The U.S. broadband market isn't competitive now, with most people having only one or two providers, Scott said. The U.S. pays more per megabit of service than most other industrialized nations, and it's 15th among industrialized nations in broadband adoption, speakers said.
If policy makers agree that universal broadband and a higher broadband adoption rate are crucial for the U.S. economy, "then we're going to have to take some really aggressive measures to get there," Scott said.
Thursday's event was the first of three Google-sponsored discussions in Washington, D.C., concerning policy recommendations the company has for the next Congress and the Obama administration. In a speech Tuesday, Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt laid out many of Google's policy goals, including a national broadband policy, energy independence, and a more open and accessible government.
In addition to addressing broadband, Thursday's panel talked about a need for a "smart" electricity grid, which would allow customers to monitor their electricity use in real time and allow them to work with electricity utilities to reduce use during peak demand. Both universal broadband and a smart electricity grid will take major investments and require leadership and strong public support, said Michael Oldak, senior director of state competitive and regulatory policies for the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group representing electric companies.
Oldak compared the challenges facing the outdated electrical grid to the challenge of sending astronauts to the moon in the 1960s. "We need that same kind of drive to get more kids into science and engineering," he said.