FCC Broadband Plan: The New Interstate Highway System

News Analysis: The proposed FCC National Broadband Plan may just be social change we all can agree on. The federal government has already shown that it can manage to build out a network of highways under Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System, among others. However, in this recession, is a broadband plan run by the government the public works project we've all been looking for?

In the mid-1990s, the phrase "Digital Divide" came into being as shorthand for describing the mass of disenfranchised Americans who were not participating in the computing or the Internet revolution. On March 16, the Federal Communications Commission wants to narrow that gap through an ambitious new plan called "Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan."

In the plan, the FCC outlines its intent to bring broadband connectivity to more than 100 million U.S. residents, nearly one-third of the U.S. total population. When considering developed nations such as Japan and South Korea boast fiber connections to practically every home and village throughout their countries, the United States has certainly lagged behind. In fact, approximately 14 million U.S. residents have no access to broadband connectivity at all in their immediate areas.

Although the United States has fallen behind other countries in its effort to bring broadband to every home, the good news is that in the past the federal government has shown the ability to connect millions of Americans living in vastly different parts of the country through infrastructure. The question now is, can this happen again?

In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower introduced the Interstate Highway System bill that helped create much of the U.S. Interstate system and gave specific federal agencies responsibility for controlling the development of this system. The goal was to connect the country through a series of federal-level interstate systems, bringing the main arteries by many smaller towns and cities and allowing a sudden influx and outflow of visitors, people, information and freedoms of travel never before experienced.

Not to mention, our government knows a little bit about technology infrastructure. After all, it is the original inventor of the ARPANET in the late 1960s, a predecessor to the Internet.

Fast forward to 2010: The new way of connecting people is through the Internet. There are 100 million people in the United States who do not have access to information the way many others take for granted in their everyday lives. Giving them such access will expose them to new careers, new venues and new information they have been deprived of since the digital revolution and the Internet Age.

While this type of program offers a feel-good component-bringing the Internet to those who lack basic access because of money or location-there are also practical, fiscal considerations. Consider the far-reaching implications on the economy and jobs market, specifically: contracts given to fiber-optic companies in the marketplace such as AlcaTel or CommScope, the labor necessary to install those cables, and the jobs created to maintain and administrate those new glowing rails of mag-lev-fast bits traveling to the homes of more than 100 million new online consumers-not to mention offices to house these new administrative groups and subcontracts to local area inspectors and services.

Jobs and connectivity in one package? It seems too good to be true, and it very well may be. The details released just touched on the basics of what is necessary. But, at its core, the FCC seems to be presenting a broadband bill with a good potential of bipartisan support. It supports principles for both liberal and conservative factions coupled to a project our government has proved it can deliver.

Update: The preview of the FCC's proposed National Broadband Plan can be found on broadband.gov at this location. Also, a great highlight of the Digital Divide circa 2010 is noted in this Washington Post op-ed by Julius Genachowski, chairman of the FCC and a contributor to the Broadband Plan.

Jack Margo is senior vice president of Internet Operations at Ziff Davis Enterprise.