To listen to the debates over IT policy in the U.S. these days, it would be easy for a casual observer to believe that the U.S. has only one policy goal for the digital economy: spurring broadband deployment and adoption.
Conference after conference, blog after blog, report after report are devoted to broadband. Don't get me wrong, we at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) -- a nonpartisan think tank -- are all for broadband, having held many of these conferences and written many of these blog postings and reports.
In fact, ITIF has written more than 10 major reports on broadband policy over the last 18 months. We have explored why the U.S. is lagging behind the international broadband curve; why we need a national broadband policy; the right way to think about broadband competition; and why overly stringent network management regulations will stifle broadband evolution.
But while broadband is important, it's not everything.
In fact, broadband is just one of a considerable number of key areas America needs to get right if it's to make digital progress. And by digital progress I am not talking about everyone getting a Facebook page, starting to Twitter, or reading blog posts like this one. I am not talking about this consumption side, which gets the lion's share of attention in Washington, but rather the production side of the digital economy.
By the production side, I mean digitizing our health care system and being able to mine that data to develop knowledge about what works. I mean digitizing our surface transportation system (roads, cars, and public transit) so that we can rely on much more real-time data about traffic and transit conditions, using this information for pricing and to hold governments accountable for how they spend transportation tax dollars.
Digital progress means creating a real system for identifying ourselves digitally so that we can do things like sign contracts online with digital signatures. It means developing a mobile commerce system on par with countries like Japan and Korea, so that with my cellphone or smart card I can pay at movies, stores, parking garages, vending machines, and kiosks.
It means making our environment alive with digital information, like the Web-accessible air quality monitoring system in Cambridge, Mass.; making our utility systems (electricity, water, and others) smart; working with the manufacturing sector to create digitally integrated manufacturing systems; and developing a national GIS strategy so we can finally move to a real "Internet of things."
And speaking of RFID, digital progress calls for much more widespread deployment of RFID across all supply chains, including retail.
To be sure, broadband is helpful to some if not all of these applications. But by setting our sights so low (broadband for all), we are fighting yesterday's war. We should have solved the broadband problem five years ago (as did many other nations, including Japan, Korea, and Sweden). But we were asleep at the switch, believing naively that the magic of the market would get us there.
We've made progress in the last few months, as the Obama administration and Congress have helped drive digital transformation by including in the stimulus plan sizeable investments in health care IT and smart grid (and some, of course in broadband).
Of course, the market and the private sector are integral to broadband progress specifically and to digital transformation in general, but absent committed, sustained, and strategic actions by government to drive digital transformation, we will continue to get further and further behind other nations, and more importantly, behind the digital technology possibility curve.
So the next time someone says "broadband," say, "Thanks, I've already done that. I'm working on America's digital transformation."
— Robert D. Atkinson is President and Founder of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation.