Like other forms of infrastructure that were largely built out in the 20th century – such as transportation, energy, water and sewage – broadband is a foundation for economic activity across many sectors. But, unlike other potential infrastructure priorities, the public benefits of broadband could grow exponentially in the coming decades, as the nation is just beginning to realize the potential innovation and productivity gains from combining high bandwidth, low-latency connectivity with massive sensor, computing, and storage capabilities.
Unlike most other types of infrastructure, the nation’s digital infrastructure is largely corporate owned and generates revenues from paying subscribers. However, the private carriers who invest in broadband capex do not, in general, capture the full benefits of those investments (e.g., the positive externalities of the internet economy and the multipliers from increasing innovation and efficiency in adjacent sectors), so their investment levels are lower and slower than would be optimal for the country. (Emphasis added). The public-policy challenge, therefore, is to increase largely private capital flows to levels consistent with the potential public benefits of abundant, ubiquitous broadband without crowding out existing private sector investment.
The above is excerpted from a white paper by Paul de Sa, who formerly headed the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis. The paper was published on the U.S. Federal Communications Commission website last month. de Sa's point on the larger benefits of ubiquitous modern telecommunications infrastructure and its economic stimulus and multiplier effect mirrors my own, discussed in my recent eBook, Service Unavailable: America's Telecommunications Infrastructure Crisis.
I fully agree with de Sa's assessment that relying on the current dominant model of privately owned infrastructure where Internet Service Providers own the connections to customer premises as well as the services offered over them cannot support rapid and robust infrastructure construction to catch the nation up to where it needs to accommodate exploding bandwidth demand today and in the future. It's naturally limited by investment risk that comes with selling and servicing monthly subscriptions one customer premise at a time that constrains access to the needed many billions of investment capital and is prone to market failure. Until the United States explicitly recognizes the limitations of this model and treats telecommunications as the national infrastructure asset that it is and launches a crash publicly-financed telecom infrastructure initiative, the nation will continue to rapidly fall further behind as the 21st century advances.
As a footnote, de Sa's paper was retracted this week by his acting replacement, Wayne A. Leighton. (h/t to Steve Blum's blog).