(Special to The Root) — The Internet has changed America perhaps even more profoundly than the telegraph, television or Motown Records. Much the way these earlier innovations shrank the spaces between Americans and unleashed new market forces, access to broadband has opened up a whole new way of doing business that crosses lines of culture and geography. In order for the Internet to continue to flourish and become even more accessible, policymakers need to rethink outdated telecommunications regulations so that carriers can keep investing in the expansion of next-generation networks.
Innovations in broadband technology have transcended the boundaries of the wired world. Today mobile devices like smartphones and tablets act as general-purpose computers complete with nearly 1.5 million available apps. These gadgets are helping to close the digital divide.
Seventy-one percent of African Americans are now connected to the Internet, according to Pew Research, and have access to information and opportunities that did not exist 20 years ago. The African-American community also has an overall smartphone-adoption rate that is higher than the national average, according to Pew Research (49 percent for African Americans versus 46 percent for Americans overall).
Huge amounts of digital data are consumed through these mobile devices, causing carriers to struggle to deliver ever-increasing network coverage and faster service. The wireless carriers' ongoing ability to provide information that consumers access on a daily basis — wherever, whenever — can be enhanced by the migration of America's communications networks away from outdated legacy phone-line networks and toward Internet Protocol-based, or IP-based, infrastructure.
The rate of home broadband adoption within the African-American community is lower than that of the general population in the United States and 16 percent lower than the white rate. This can largely be attributed to accessibility and affordability issues.
Putting smart policies in place to promote the IP transition would help address these concerns. With the right incentives, incumbent telephone companies could invest in and build faster, more robust and more dynamic IP-based networks that would provide residential customers with additional competitive choices for video, high-speed broadband and voice services. Accelerating the IP transition would also have the positive effect of shifting the cost burden of maintaining antiquated, legacy voice networks away from voice subscribers in communities of color, who would disproportionately have to pay the costs of maintaining outdated networks without the benefit of access to new services provided by next-generation networks being built at the same time.
Many actions by the U.S. government have helped facilitate the growth of our nation's broadband infrastructure. For example, policymakers decided to make more government-controlled spectrum — the invisible airwaves that carry radio signals, television broadcasts, voice calls and data traffic — available for high-speed commercial mobile-broadband service. They also did not impose monopoly telephone regulations on competitive new IP-based services and encouraged agencies to use the Internet to connect, serve and inform citizens.
The government can take similar steps to promote investment and deployment of IP-based, high-speed wire-line broadband networks. There is no doubt that broadband is transforming how we work, live, play and learn. Every sector of our economy and facet of our lives is being remade by real-time, high-speed connectivity. As a result, policymakers and industry leaders should view the future with a blend of optimism and humility.
Perhaps the only reliable rule for predicting technology trends is that we tend to overestimate changes in the near term and underestimate them in the long term. Although we know that broadband is changing everything, policymakers can never truly predict the next innovation. Too often, any efforts to force or regulate an unknowable future limit competition and miss disruptive innovations — technology that blows up the status quo — along the way.
The future of broadband is bright, and the benefits to America in general and the African-American community in particular could be boundless. The Federal Communications Commission has the opportunity to help lead the IP transformation in America for the benefit of all communities, particularly those currently lacking access to high-speed wire-line and wireless Internet services.
The same way that Motown unleashed the creativity of an entire generation, the Internet will — if policymakers ensure that adequate training and opportunities are available for all Americans, and if they let our innovators innovate and our entrepreneurs compete — keep creating the technological equivalent of music we can all dance to.
Jamal Simmons, an adviser to corporate, nonprofit and political clients and a former Clinton-administration appointee, is co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance.
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