A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread, and Ubiquitous High-Speed Broadband

A group of higher education associations has called for major changes in federal policy toward Internet communications. “The main thing that we’re calling for here is an advance telecommunications policy that looks 15 years out rather than one that rearranges the deck chairs. A more advanced Internet is really what is required, and that should be the goal.”

And it should be very, very fast; it should be open to everyone and to all lawful content; state and local governments should continue to be able to operate their own broadband networks; and the federal government should pour more money into new network technologies to get us there.

How could I possibly disagree?

In fact, it’s about time. In the past 10 years, what was initially a niche communications service is fast becoming the core communications service. It has reached a level with other “equal access and affordability” services, such as telephones, roads, and television. That’s a big change, and very little in our laws reflect that. And unlike other important things currently being left undone due to their highly-politicized nature–-Social Security, healthcare, etc.–-access to information is not seen by most as part of the culture wars.

It should be clear to just about anyone by now that the Internet, in all of its near-future permutations, is the primary communications network. And not just in the old sense of communications, either, as things that are now getting “communicated” are things we didn’t used to think of as communications at all. When I served in Vietnam in the late 1960s, a letter to or from home might have had a photograph in it. Now, such a communication is done by email and the images are digital and can include entire movies.

Who knows what’s coming in 15 years? With molecular assemblers using nanotechnology, it could well be that my mother’s kitchen can send a recipe to my kitchen and I can come home to a well-cooked meal which was whipped up from disassembled molecules out of my recycling bin. Some might think that is a bit far-fetched for 15 years; but it’s clearly possible in 30.

As Michael Dolence and Donald M. Norris put it in 1995, “Now is the time to think strategically and position institutions to consider pathways to transformation and act on them, not to engage in preemptive debate. This d'es not mean we lack evidence to support our assessments of current conditions and future opportunities. Precisely the opposite is true. But our experience with envisioning and developing Information Age tools suggests that if we wait until the vision is completely clear and risks have vanished, the opportunities will have passed, as well.” (Dolence and Norris, 1995, Transforming Higher Education: A Vision for Learning in the 21st Century)

So this new coalition of higher education associations, calling itself Broadband for Higher Education, is planning to use the influence of college and university presidents on local and regional decision makers to influence Congress as it takes on the first major changes in telecommunications laws since 1996. Can a Congress that seems to most enjoy culture war diversions wend its way through major telecommunications laws changes without politicizing things?

What about the role of money? Well, the folks who want to make money should be able to adjust to making money with value-added functionalities and services. The point of this initiative seems to be that the Internet is as “public” a function as open town square space is. Analogously, what these higher education associations are calling for is that anyone be able to speak and to be heard. As the EDUCAUSE white paper that serves as background for this initiative puts it: “[T]he test should not be based on provider status within the public or private sector, but on whether a truly affordable, high-quality broadband access is being made available to all residents and businesses.”

Clearly, this is a reaction to the various lawsuits and state legislature movements to keep local and state governments from providing broadband to citizens and I heartily approve. The moves to keep broadband access from the public using lawsuits and legislatures is reminiscent both of the places in Latin America where companies have bought up entire villages’ water rights and try to get villagers whose families have used local wells for generations to pay to keep on using them. Or, of those many early science fiction stories about ‘airless’ space stations and planetoids where workers and “citizens” have to worry about running out of money, because that would mean they run out of air to breathe.

Lack of high-speed Internet access isn’t directly harmful to life . . . yet. But Access to information has always been important, essential to humans, and since most of the information we are going to want/need is coming through the Internet, it should in fact be the right of everyone to have such access. (Maybe we even need a Constitutional amendment?)

So, higher education–which has a huge stake in high-speed broadband–is stepping up and saying that it isn’t good enough when we reach out to households, only one-fourth of which have decent broadband. We need them all to have it in order to achieve educational aspirations.

If anything, the case could be made a great deal stronger. It probably g'es against the grain of many higher education leaders to think nationally in a competitive sense, but the United States leadership in higher education is currently threatened–not only by post-9/11 immigration regulations affecting graduate students, but by an explosion of new (and quality) higher education opportunities overseas.

So let me add one more argument to the Broadband for Higher Education position: In a changing economy which is bringing 5-6 times as many consumers and producers (of everything, not just education) into the global marketplace, we need the entire United States to be the future equivalent of Ann Arbor, Michigan or Austin, Texas, or Madison, Wisconsin. And making sure that our country of fully networked with the fastest possible broadband, accessible to all, is one way to position it well going into the future.

If you get a chance to speak with a local, regional, state, or federal politician–help make the point: Ubiquitous broadband is not about politics–it’s about a level playing field and a place to stand, air to breathe, and water to drink.

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