John Chambers: Broadband Speeds Our Economy

Now that President Obama has signed the $787 billion economic stimulus package into law, the real hard work begins: using that money to create jobs. If spent wisely, this package has a chance at fundamentally reforming the U.S. health-care system, making our economy energy efficient and providing Americans with the training and skills required to succeed in a 21st century global marketplace.

But the country can’t accomplish these goals unless it has the infrastructure to support them. That’s why the funding for broadband was so vital. Broadband is the ticket for entry to participate in the world economy. It is a fundamental technology upon which other things are built. It enables collaboration, innovation and operational excellence, and positions the U.S. to compete on a global basis.

The impact of broadband has been similar to that of the national highway system in the 1950s. Until then, our nation’s roads were slow and the quality was unpredictable, which hindered commerce and travel. The modern highway system made our country accessible and in the process, created new industries — transforming our economy and by extension, our society.

That is what ultra high-speed broadband does. Think of how far we’ve come in just the last decade, when dial-up was the norm and the Internet was only used to surf, send an email, or order a product or service. Now the Internet is largely defined by video and various levels of interaction among users, such as through virtual meetings with co-workers located in cities around the world.

Increasing our broadband speeds to 100 Mbps from the current U.S. median of 2.3 Mbps will have a transformative effect on our economy and our society. High-speed networking enables new human collaboration at a profound level, and such collaboration will radically change the way we think.

In health care, for example, dynamic collaboration by way of ultra high-speed networks will help researchers find cures for diseases faster. On a more personal level, remote consultations with doctors via our HealthPresence system are enabled when life-size, “HD” images and information are transmitted over such networks to doctors who can speak to directly to patients, view the data real-time and help make a diagnosis hundreds if not thousands of miles away. Indeed, as the Baby Boomers place ever-more stress on our health-care system, telemedicine is the next frontier, but it cannot happen unless all of our connections are fast and reliable, be they in the office or at home.

If 100 Mbps at home seems ambitious, consider this: Japan and South Korea are already reaching that level. According to a forthcoming research paper by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, South Korea — a country with 1/6th the population of the United States — has almost as much Internet traffic. That’s because they’re already operating at average speeds of 49 Mbps.

In the U.S., ITIF projects that high-speed connections to the home would increase the number of telecommuters to 19 million by 2012. That would save 1.5 billion hours of commute time — and reduce gasoline consumption by 5 percent. It is a green technology, one that can help us kick our oil habit.

And just as importantly, it would accomplish our goal of creating jobs. Deploying next-generation broadband to 80 percent of U.S. homes would create some 2 million new jobs, according to the upcoming ITIF study. In short, if we invest and build a national broadband infrastructure for the entire country, everybody benefits.

As our policymakers work on maintaining U.S. competitiveness, they should keep in mind that broadband is the vehicle by which our citizens can be more productive, health care can be modernized, our economy can become more efficient and innovation can flourish. To continue our nation’s growth, add jobs and drive innovation, we must invest in broadband.

John T. Chambers is the chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems.