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Broadband Policy

Broadband Policy: Lessons Learned, U.S. Interstate Highway System

Several nations' policymakers around the globe are reportedly reviewing initial proposals for a National Broadband Network Infrastructure program. But, with no proven public policy model on the exact same subject and scale already in existence, perhaps there are lessons to be learned by studying the events that led up to the creation of the U.S. Interstate Highway System (a notable national infrastructure grand plan that has delivered measurable results).

The point of this comparison is simple: most people will search for personal meaning, relevance and substance in a public policy position statement, and when they find it - sometimes great mountains of opposition can be moved, and that same energy redirected to a common cause of mutual benefit. Here's a case in point.

Then-U.S. President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, but this significant accomplishment was the culmination of a vast concerted effort by many determined policymakers and their credible advisers. Furthermore, this enactment was preceded by many years of preparatory analysis and planning work. As an example, Congress originally decided to explore the concept by creating The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938, and directed the chief of the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) to study the feasibility of a six-route toll network.

In addition, Eisenhower's advisers didn't cloud the public debate with how wide interstate highways should be; they instead espoused the social and commercial end results made possible by this underlying infrastructure development program. Of course, these technical points had to be addressed behind the scenes in a detailed proposal, but it wasn't mentioned in the initial "issue positioning and messaging."

Resisting the urge to focus attention on two-lane or four-lane highway capacity, or the utility of straight or circular access-egress ramps to main highway arteries, they instead captured the people's imagination with images of positive social and economic transformation (improved access to regional trade, easier movement of goods for export, more jobs created to support this increased movement of goods, etc.).

Also, the staged implementation of this plan and the deployment of the physical infrastructure (highways and bridges) occurred over many years, and actually didn't reach nor benefit all the intended beneficiaries as soon as had been originally anticipated. In fact, consider how long it really took to make ubiquitous high-speed road transportation a reality in America: "The last stoplight on the Interstate system was removed in the 1980's. It was on I-90 in Wallace, Idaho and when it was removed, the local townspeople gave it a proper burial in the local cemetery, complete with a 21-gun salute."

Clearly, while all grand plans take significant time to implement, they all appear to have another key thing in common -- they always start with an articulate and compelling vision of the future that people can rally behind, because they believe in the heart of the message and they have trust in the orator.

Conclusively, I offer an example quote (from the prior U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney E. Slater) as the epitome of inspirational language that's proven to trigger uplifting emotions which resonate with all people: "The Interstate System is a tremendous engineering achievement, but it represents far more than concrete, asphalt and steel, said Slater. The Interstate System changed the way we live and the way we work. It is an engine that fuels our economy, creates jobs and serves as a gateway to opportunity. It is truly the tie that binds, a system that connects all of us to this wonderful land, America the beautiful."

So, if we were to apply the "best practices" from these valuable lessons learned, then how might we best portray a National Broadband Network Infrastructure program that's likely to be broadly embraced? Perhaps we can explain the intrinsic role of broadband networking technology, by the effective use of simple and yet vivid analogies. Suddenly, we're able to cast aside any negative perceptions of a mercenary lobbyist, and instead assume the role of the informed storyteller, a wise mentor, or a thoughtful and caring agent of change.

Therefore, we should explain the enabling role of broadband infrastructure as a foundation for e-business, and the anticipated outcome to contribute to the common good of a given community. Then it's easier to see the real impact of proximity and access (or the lack thereof) to broadband network arteries. By comparison: consider the prior economic impact to the towns along Route 66, in the aftermath of the creation of the U.S. interstate highway system. The "cause and affect" is apparent, and you don't need to be a professional economist to comprehend the commercial and social implications to impacted local communities.

We should explain how the Internet isn't just about "surfing" web pages, and offer up specific examples. In fact, there are pragmatic applications of how even small and medium enterprises (SME's) can leverage the Internet to positively open up new markets for their products and services.

Unfortunately, much of the recent progress to make the Internet relevant and indispensable to SME's is unknown to policymakers, and frankly the underlying principles of these nascent technologies are quite complex, if presented from a "techie" perspective. So, let's also depict simple analogies for these key concepts.

In summary, it's my opinion that greater importance must be placed upon the more obvious benefits of tangible business applications that are totally dependent on attaining and enhancing access to appropriate telecom infrastructure. Policymakers will choose to comprehend, and ultimately endorse, a value proposition that is based on a premise that is clear to them, and compelling -- because it's stated in such a way that it's relevant to a broad cross-section of their local constituents.

Policymakers must be briefed on a rational broadband deployment business case that clearly resonates with mainstream constituents. Therefore, more emphasis must be applied to simplicity, clarity and pertinence of a broadband public policy proposal, in order to attain meaningful progress on this issue. Initially, I was all for "educating" policymakers, but I've since discovered that it is us (the telecom and IT industry thought-leaders) that needs to learn what constitutes the effective communication of ideas.

Let's all rise to the occasion, and hone our storytelling skills. Alternatively, let's recognize that the power of passionate persuasion needs to be at the forefront of selecting an appropriate spokesperson for this cause, not technical expertise.

Let's acknowledge that broadband networks are the means to an end objective; they're not the essential aim or the ambition that drives people who seek their inherent benefit. Somehow this perspective tends to get lost in the often-myopic "bigger bandwidth" dialogue.

Given the experience of the residents of Wallace, Idaho, perhaps we can all witness the same level of passionate community engagement, when the enlightened citizens of your local community finally lay the last 56Kbps analog modem to rest.

David H. Deans
Economic TeleDevelopment Forum