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December 9, 2010 9:39 AM

Sputnik, South Korea, and The Fierce Urgency of NOW!

On Monday, President Obama gave a speech in NC on the economy where, intentionally or not, he juxtaposed Sputnik and South Korea.

The reference to Sputnik was about how it served as a catalyst that spurred innovation and how it's what our country needs to get out of these economic doldrums. To quote him directly:

"In 1957, just before this college opened, the Soviet Union beat us into space by launching a satellite known as Sputnik. And that was a wake-up call that caused the United States to boost our investment in innovation and education -- particularly in math and science. And as a result, once we put our minds to it, once we got focused, once we got unified, not only did we surpass the Soviets, we developed new American technologies, industries, and jobs."

There were two references to South Korea, one about the recently signed trade agreement that's aimed at increasing exports from America to South Korea, and the other to cite their 90% to 65% edge in broadband adoption rates.

In this speech President Obama also spoke about the need to invest in infrastructure to drive innovation and economic growth, declaring:

"If this is truly going to be our Sputnik moment, we need a commitment to innovation that we haven't seen since President Kennedy challenged us to go to the moon."

But despite alluding to the need to invest in our information superhighways as one facet of America's Sputnik moment, he fails to make any mention of South Korea's massive investment in its nationwide fiber infrastructure.

There's a disconnect here. how can you talk about South Korea in a speech about America needing a Sputnik moment and not talk about fiber?

Making the omission more glaring, much of the speech was about industries of the future, like biotech and clean energy, all of which require fiber connectivity to operate in the 21st century economy.

And not to nitpick, but the speech was given in North Carolina, a state that through the e-NC Authority has been a leader in driving fiber deployment and utilization, yet they garnered no mention.

My intent in writing today is not to criticize these omissions. Instead I'm here to point out their significance within a larger context, namely that of America needing to understand the fierce urgency of now when it comes to spurring not just fiber deployment and adoption but also utilization and innovation.

As I've argued previously, utilization is the point at which people are able to start realizing the benefits of fiber. From a societal point of view, this is where we're able to start optimizing the operations of our institutions to take advantage of the efficiencies and new opportunities made possible through fiber.

Innovation then is about expanding the possibilities of what fiber can do. From a societal point of view, this is where we start to drive new economic growth, the creation of apps, services, and content that can be sold into a global marketplace.

It should be mentioned that utilization and innovation are intimately tied together as well as innovation is meaningless without utilization, and the best innovations often come from closely examining what's needed to maximize utilization.

To date our federal government has focused most of its energies on issues of deployment and adoption. While the national broadband plan starts to get into utilization, it's no further along as a plan than South Korea's government was more than ten years ago when they started this process.

And at this point there appears to be no coordinated strategy to push fiber-powered innovation at the federal level.

So here's why this is so scary.

On the utilization front, research has shown it takes years for communities to start really changing the way they operate to take advantage of what fiber makes possible. So that means the businesses, individuals, and organizations of South Korea are already realizing large-scale economic gains while we're still getting our act together.

But where I'm even more concerned is on the trajectory of America's position as a leader in the digital economy.

The reality of digital innovation in the US today is that the vast majority of investment and development energy is being poured into applications built for the 20th century Internet where bandwidth was scarce and unreliable.

Now, I don't blame developers, entrepreneurs, and investors for doing this as they want to build products to sell to the biggest markets, and at this point there are a lot fewer users on 21st century broadband networks than there are on 20th century in the US.

But that's not the case in a country like South Korea, where basically everyone's on an ultra high speed connection. What this means is that their creative entrepreneurial energy can start focusing more on the development of next gen apps that 21st century broadband makes possible.

What this could ultimately lead to is that despite America having built the Internet and most global internet brands being grown in American soil to date, the next wave of Internet giants that are developing next gen apps won't necessarily be doing so here.

What happens when some kid dreams up a killer cheap HD videoconferencing utility that revolutionizes how business is done? Do we want that to be in a garage in South Korea or in America?

Because that's what's at risk right now. The imagination of South Korea's innovators is unlimited by bandwidth constraints. They're free to dream up all sorts of new ways to leverage these 21st century networks. while the dreams of America's innovators seem mostly limited to the next big thing in social media.

While President Obama avoids this whole conversation in his speech, he does manage to allude to what's at stake:

"Look, right now the status quo -- South Korea is selling a whole bunch of stuff here and we're not selling it there."

But while the government focuses on correcting this imbalance for physical goods, if we don't acknowledge the need to bolster our production of 21st century digital goods then we'll have missed the boat on the greatest economic opportunity of our lives.

And this isn't something we can wait around on. The longer we sit the further ahead countries like South Korea get. We need to find innovative ways to encourage greater utilization and innovation now if we have any hope of leading in the future.

That's why I moved to Lafayette, LA to found FiberCorps, a new non-profit dedicated to solving precisely this challenge of how do you encourage greater utilization and innovation through fiber.

We're working hard to answer these questions at the grassroots level, but our odds of success go up exponentially if the federal government in general and the White House in particular decides to make developing America's digital economy part of its Sputnik moment.

I hope this post makes some small progress towards helping the federal government recognize the need for it to set an agenda attuned to the fierce urgency of now in encouraging greater utilization and innovation of fiber in America.

While we can't take our eye off the ball when it comes to deployment and adoption as they're what enable and create the marketplace of the digital economy, fostering greater utilization and innovation is what'll help generate the demand that will drive greater broadband supply and secure our future as a world power in the digital economy.

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