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September 14, 2011 10:36 AM

US Ignite: Hope For America's Broadband Innovation Leadership

While details are still scarce, I'm delighted to share with you all the recently announced US Ignite initiative, initially described here in this White House blog post.

US Ignite is a joint initiative of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation. US Ignite is "designed to promote US leadership in applications and services for ultra-fast broadband networks."

On multiple levels, I find this to be an incredibly significant effort.

As readers of this blog know, I'm a big believer in the power of fiber and big broadband networks, and like most of you I envision a future where a whole host of bandwidth-intensive apps are revolutionizing everything from healthcare and education to government and industry.

But I've long been worried that as a nation we're not focusing enough attention on building the next generation of the Internet. Instead the vast majority of our entrepreneurial energy and press coverage are focused on incremental improvements to the existing Internet.

Now, this mindset makes sense within the context of individual entrepreneurs. They're building businesses aimed at the biggest markets, which today means slow broadband connections and limited performance.

But when you look at the rest of the world at a macro level, a disturbing potential starts taking shape. With countries like South Korea, Japan, and the Netherlands racing forward with universal full fiber deployment, their innovators are being enabled to think beyond what the Internet looks like today and start imagining and building what it can look like tomorrow.

Research has shown that it can take 5 years to realize the full benefits of increases in broadband capacity. Well a country like South Korea's already at least 5 years ahead of us in terms of deployment. The question I have is when are they going to start getting five years ahead of us in terms of the utilization of this new capacity? And when they do, what will that mean to America's future as a leader in the digital economy?

If you look at the current Internet, most of the biggest brands online are American companies. We were the first country in the world to have large-scale broadband networks, and as such our innovators and entrepreneurs were able to cement our leadership in the online world.

The challenge is that that leadership position is not guaranteed in a world where countries are going hard after delivering gigabit service to their citizens while we stay stuck at a few measly Mbps.

But how can we take serious steps to overcome this?

Figuring out a large-scale fiber deployment strategy ala South Korea is next to impossible, especially given current economic conditions.

Thankfully, many communities and private providers have already taken it upon themselves to deploy this crucial 21st century communications infrastructure, and therefore are poised to support this kind of networked innovation.

The challenge becomes how do you make these more limited markets attractive to entrepreneurs to invest in building solutions for, and how do we capture the imagination of our country's innovators to start focusing on dreaming up big solutions to our nation's biggest problems through the availability of high capacity networks.

And it's to these last points that I'm so excited about the US Ignite program. At its core, its purpose is to aggregate sufficient US users connected to high capacity networks to create a large enough addressable marketplace to be able to sustain businesses delivering solutions that leverage these networks. US Ignite in purpose and in name is also intended to be a big sign post to let our country's innovators know that these networks exist here in America and that we want their ideas and energy for how to take greatest advantage of this capacity.

While the Google Fiber project started to move the needle on conversations around the value of investing in high capacity fiber networks, I think that US Ignite has the potential to fundamentally shift our perception as a nation about the potential value of these networks.

Though we may still be years away from large scale deployment of fiber in the US, the US Ignite program is going to play a crucial role in making sure that we don't lose any more ground in the meantime as leaders of the digital economy.

Because I firmly believe that America is still home of the greatest innovators and entrepreneurs in the world, and if we give the opportunity and the resources to do great things that that's exactly what they'll do.

Look forward to reading more coverage of the US Ignite program on this site moving forward as when you're talking about the intersection of broadband networks, applications, and policy there's arguably nothing more exciting going on right now than the potential of this program to move the needle when it comes to expanding our capacity as a nation to develop the next generation of Internet applications.

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