- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2002

There is a deepening consensus among technology experts that the deployment of broadband super-fast, always-on Internet access is proceeding far too slowly. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell recently called fixing this problem "the central communication policy objective of the day."

This week, the House of Representatives will weigh in on this issue when it finally takes up legislation we sponsored three years ago, with the aim of updating our telecommunications laws to enhance competition in the broadband market and speed deployment of high-speed Internet access to American homes and businesses.

Why do we think broadband is so important?

In many ways, the broadband build-out represents the same advance to today's information age that the construction of the Interstate Highway System did in the 1950s or the transcontinental railroad did in the 19th century: As the backbone of an enhanced information infrastructure, it will be the crucial network that will link together our economy and drive new advances in productivity and efficiency.

Many of America's largest corporations are reaping the benefits of broadband services right now, saving millions of dollars by streamlining their supply chains and reaching customers with innovative new marketing campaigns. Yet just 6 percent of small- and medium-sized businesses the very enterprises that create most new jobs and employ most people in the United States enjoy the advantages of this technology, according to the Precursor Group, an independent research firm. And only about 8 percent of American homes have high-speed Internet access.

Our bill, the Internet Freedom and Broadband Deployment Act, is designed to accomplish three main goals: It would lift regulations that are inhibiting the build-out of a nationwide broadband network. It would give all technologies whether telephone, cable, satellite or wireless a chance to compete on an equal basis. And it would encourage the type of competition necessary to speed the deployment of broadband to America's homes and small businesses.

The issue is bigger than just its impact on the Internet, or even communications more broadly. Today's regulatory barriers to broadband are already having a negative impact on our economy by discouraging investment and delaying development of the next generation of Internet-based applications.

The subsequent decline in technology investment is hitting workers hard. So far, more than 1.3 million Americans have lost their jobs since the economy slipped into recession. Of those newly unemployed Americans, more than 1 in 5, or more than 225,000, have come from telecommunications the highest rate of job loss of any U.S. industry. According to a study just released by the New Millennium Research Council, accelerating the broadband buildout would help reverse this slide, creating an estimated 1.2 million new and better still, permanent jobs.

Moving from jobs to GDP, economist Robert Crandall of the Brookings Institution has estimated that America's economy would reap $500 billion per year in economic benefits from the deployment of a nationwide broadband network. New investments in information technology, Mr. Crandall believes, would create productivity-enhancing increases in efficiency in fields as disparate as health care, transportation, communications and higher education.

This prediction is consistent with recent economic history. Over the last five years, information technology generated a full two-thirds of the gains in labor productivity in this country and one-third of our GDP growth. Until the technology sector regains its spark, there is no way America's economy can fire on all cylinders and regain its full potential.

To say our bill has won bipartisan support is not to say it isn't controversial. No significant measure ever is. Opponents vigorously claim this legislation enhances the power of the Bell companies and unravels the competitive reforms implemented by the 1996 Telecommunications Act. We believe these concerns are unfounded, and we're in good company: According to the Federal Communications Commission, competition is alive and well in the local telecommunications market, despite the high-profile collapse of many upstart telecom competitors with shaky business plans and shakier finances.

Besides, the rules developed to open up the old monopoly telephone wires remain wholly intact under our bill. These regulations were written when the public Internet was in its infancy and were never meant to govern the new networks of the Internet.

Intel's chairman Andy Grove has called today's slow-motion broadband buildout "the key limitation in our high technology economy." Congress has the chance to fix that problem and administer a jump-start to the stalled high-tech sector. This is a bipartisan plan that will work, with the benefits measured in jobs, GDP and economic growth.

Rep. Billy Tauzin, Louisiana Republican, is chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and Rep. John Dingell, Michigan Democrat, is the ranking member of the same committee.

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