National view: Minnesota will get it right on broadband

April 11, 2016

This piece was originally published by the Duluth News Tribune.

With all of Minnesota’s 201 legislators up for re-election this November, the debate is intensifying over how to best promote economic growth and expanded opportunity across the state, particularly in Minnesota’s rural communities. A cornerstone of this debate is the important role broadband plays in fueling future economic growth and connecting Minnesotans to vital opportunities in health care, education and the global economy.

As one of the greatest equalizers of our age, broadband connections give any child, regardless of geography or income, a chance to reach a hand across a smartphone or keyboard to access the same broad universe of knowledge. It means that any rural or remote business with a good idea and an Internet connection can become the corner store in the global economy. Notably, in both big cities and harder-to-reach communities, wireless broadband is extending this opportunity by giving us the ability to connect anywhere, anytime, to do almost anything.

In the early 1990s — when Cray supercomputers were still all the rage — I was fortunate to walk into the White House with a new president. We had this crazy idea that technology and telecommunications could be engines for economic growth and opportunity. We were able to make some historic bipartisan policy decisions. And we took steps to advance the Internet, modernize our telecommunications laws, unleash mobile innovation, make more spectrum available and crank up America’s innovation engine. Before long, entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere had launched a major Internet revolution, and information technology was powering two-thirds of all U.S. economic growth.

We’ve all seen how powerful the Internet has been, creating as much economic growth in the last 15 years as the industrial age did in 50 years. But we’ve only seen a fraction, about 10 percent, of what the broadband revolution has to deliver. Today, only 1 percent of the things that can be connected are connected. By 2020, some predict as many as 50 billion connected devices, meaning this smart revolution will spread from the palm of your hand to smart cars, smart meters, smart buildings, smart cities and literally everything around us. This connected revolution will mean a complete and utter transformation of our economy. And for consumers, it will be especially empowering, putting us in charge of more of the physical world around us.

For policymakers, the mobile revolution opens up huge opportunities to help solve some of our most pressing policy challenges — smart sensors that can help us cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent, smart cities that can improve quality of life, connected cars that can cut car fatalities in half, and a connected world that can help create thousands of jobs. As I travel the country, I see communities that are looking for opportunities to become the next Silicon Valley — for connected agriculture, connected health care or digital manufacturing.

Many broadband-enabled jobs don’t necessarily need new skills. Instead, broadband is about extending opportunities to places where there might be a ready talent pool. For example, home broadband connections combined with VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) are enabling new kinds of home-based customer-service jobs — I call them pajama jobs — that are giving families new flexibility. More than 30 states have adopted legislation to help ensure they can harness the full power and potential that Internet-based communications, like Voice over IP, can deliver (think applications like Facetime and Skype).

I’m glad to see Minnesota doesn’t want to be left behind and is considering legislation to codify current policy to avoid a patchwork of potentially duplicative and conflicting rules for VoIP services.

But economic growth and opportunity do not come from wired broadband alone. I am proud to have helped craft President Barack Obama’s wireless strategy, and in his 2011 State of the Union he set a goal of extending next generation wireless LTE to 98 percent of the country within five years. Amazingly, as a nation, we blew past that goal a year ahead of schedule. It took massive investments, a vibrant and competitive marketplace, access to increasingly scarce spectrum and pragmatic policies to create the right regulatory incentives.

Today, the U.S. is the global leader with more than half of the world’s 4G subscribers. And we now stand on the precipice of another new wireless broadband revolution, with speeds 100 times faster than today, split-second reaction times for applications like autonomous vehicles and reductions in energy-per-bit consumption by a factor of 1,000 to support billions of simultaneously connected devices.

The global race to 5G is underway, and we can only stay ahead if we embrace policies that are as smart and nimble as the innovations they govern.

So as this smart revolution moves from the palm of our hands to smart cars, smart homes and a smarter connected world all around us, we need smart policies to go with it — at the state and national levels. This is an exciting time to be talking about our broadband future. I know Minnesota’s going to get it right, and I look forward to seeing a bright mobile future play out here in “the star of the north.”