As part of his economic stimulus plan that he says will create millions of new jobs, President-elect Barack Obama has spoken of committing to building a national broadband infrastructure that runs through “the heart of inner cities and rural towns all across America.” A laudable goal to be sure, but will pouring billions into broadband construction programs that will either supplement or replace the substantial private investment already underway be as effective as thought, or, since fiber optics cable is generally buried will it be an example of government paying people to dig holes and fill them in again, as Reason’s Jacob Sullum writes in “Obama’s Job Fetish” in the January 2009 issue of Reason magazine (no link yet)? Details have been scare about what Obama thinks is “next generation” broadband, but if jobs is the main measure when it comes to funding, it could amount to a lot of wasted money and duplicated effort. The least expensive and fastest method to deliver broadband to rural areas is wireless, which while not packing the punch of fiber optic cable, can be suitable for 10-20 Mb/s of bandwidth. But erecting wireless towers and engineering radio does not require the labor and capital investment that laying fiber does. So will Obama and the Democratic Congress, in their push for “jobs” attached costly obligations for the use of federal broadband dollars just so more people can be employed to dig ditches on the taxpayer’s dime? This is exactly what the universal service fund mechanisms encourage today, and it comes at the expense of new technology platforms being developed by more entrepreneurial companies, the real job engines. If broadband capitalization is left to the private sector, these companies may have more of a chance of flourishing and therby supporting the foundation of 21st century broadband that Obama really wants, than what would be a short-term jobs project.
Steven Titch served as a policy analyst at Reason Foundation from 2004 to 2013.