Gangnam Bandwidth, American Style


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Surrounded by next generation flexible displays and the next big tech toys at the 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show, former President Bill Clinton made this observation: South Korea is now number one in the world for computer download speeds, and the U.S. has fallen to number 15. “Our speeds are one-fourth of theirs, and we have fallen off the map,” Clinton said.

For the uninitiated, the former president is referring to the fact that there are few to no American communities that are hubs of the kind of world-leading bandwidth sufficient to drive next-generation innovation in our economy. He’s referring to the fact that, though international studies differ, the United States does not enjoy bandwidth that is nearly as fast as our peer countries. He’s referring to the fact that, for the first time since American ingenuity birthed the commercial Internet, we do not have a single national wireline provider with plans to deploy a better, faster and bigger network. For most Americans, five years from now, the best network available to them will be the same network they have today. As a result, the best networks — along with the innovations and economic power they enable — will live in other countries as well.

But we should not give up on American ingenuity; as Tom Friedman detailed in a recent New York Times op-ed, upgrading the broadband network in Chattanooga, Tenn., to world-leading gigabit speeds has transformed the community from a “slowly declining and deflating urban balloon” to the fastest growing city in Tennessee, attracting “a beehive of tech startups that all thrive on big data and super-high-speed Internet.” That’s what Gangnam bandwidth can do in America.

That’s why a recent announcement about big bandwidth from Seattle is also big news. The city just announced a plan to bring gigabit service to a dozen of its neighborhoods. Over 100,000 Seattle residents, as well as health care and educational institutions, will have access to world-leading speeds. Not only is the scale of Seattle’s effort impressive, the path it took — smart policies involving rights of way management and dark fiber — can be replicated by other communities that wish to control their own bandwidth destiny.

As America’s National Broadband Plan concluded in 2010, our country needs a critical mass of communities with world-leading networks for us to continue to have the kind of environment that fosters the cutting edge innovations necessary to develop the next generation of world-leading broadband applications. Seattle is not alone in recognizing that bigger bandwidth is an economic development tool. Just as in decades past, when communities had to learn how to benefit from new modes of power or transportation — with electrical, train or air terminal facilities — so it is now with bandwidth. Officials in Kansas City, Kansas and Missouri worked with Google, offering streamlined processes and regulatory efficiencies. Mayor Emanuel in Chicago and Mayor Bloomberg in New York have both recently launched initiatives to enhance their cities’ digital future. Thanks to efforts by their local leadership and a commitment to next-generation networks, residents in Bristol, Virginia; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Lafayette, Louisiana can already get gigabit speeds. And Gig.U, a consortium of universities and communities looking to accelerate next-generation connectivity in their regions, has, in addition to the Seattle project, helped catalyze ultra-high-speed broadband projects in the past few months: in Orono and Old Town, Maine; Cleveland, Ohio; Gainesville, Florida; East Lansing, Michigan and Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.

Not every community has Seattle’s assets, particularly the strong information, communications, apps development economy and committed local leaders like Mayor McGinn. But Seattle has created a model that every community can follow in improving the environment for the private investment necessary to create a new generation of American broadband leadership. Mr. Friedman proposed a $20 billion fund to bring gigabit connectivity to 200 American cities, arguing that these networks would lead to “a ‘melt-up’ in the United States economy.” While, unfortunately in our view, such a program may not be in the realm of the politically achievable, ironically, it might be the actions of individual cities to catalyze such networks that leads to the kind of growth, debt reduction and surplus that could enable the federal government to once again consider big programs to drive growth and American economic leadership. And this is the kind of policy innovation America deserves.

Blair Levin became Communications & Society Fellow with the Aspen Institute after serving as Executive Director of the National Broadband Planning effort. He is currently Executive Director of Gig.U, a project within the Institute that seeks to accelerate the deployment of next generation networks and services by using university communities as test-beds.

Ellen Satterwhite is Program Director for Gig.U. Prior to joining the project, Ellen was Consumer Policy Adviser to the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau where she was responsible for consumer research and analysis of emerging trends in communications services for the Bureau.

The University Community Next Generation Innovation Project, or Gig.U, is a broad-based group of over 30 leading research universities from across the United States. Drawing on America’s rich history of community-led innovation in research and entrepreneurship, Gig.U seeks to accelerate the deployment of gigabit-speed networks to leading U. S. universities and their surrounding communities. Improvements to these networks drive economic growth and stimulate a new generation of innovations addressing critical needs, such as health care and education. Visit Gig.U online at

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