SF Mayor Urges New Vision for Lagging US Broadband

America is rapidly losing ground in the broadband race and this has a serious economic impact, hampering the ability to compete globally.

by / April 21, 2006
Mayor Gavin Newsom (middle) in front of Calit2 with UCSD Division Director Ramesh Rao (left) and Calit2 Director Smarr.

Think that fiber bringing gigabit bandwidth to the home is somewhere out in the distant technological future? Think again. This is today's technology that Japan's NTT Communications Corp. is already installing in homes.

Last year, according to Larry Smarr, director of California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), NTT had 1.6 million fiber customers. This year it is 4.6 million and the company is investing billions a year to aggressively achieve the goal of fiber based Internet service to 30 million homes by the end of 2010.

Smarr was speaking at a recent Big Broadband Conference organized by optical networking advocacy group FirstMile.US. Presentations from the conference have just now been made available online in streaming video (

Both Smarr and keynote speaker Gavin Newsom, mayor of the City and County of San Francisco, emphasized that America is rapidly losing ground in the broadband race and that this has a serious economic impact, hampering the ability to compete globally.

"It has been a number of years now, since at least the late nineties, that study after study has been done by industry groups and the National Academy of Sciences all reaching the conclusion that if we could establish true broadband in America, it would have a huge economic impact," Smarr said.

Smarr and other scientists and researchers at Calit2 believe that it is a no-brainer that ubiquitous broadband access is going to be as critical to the 21st century as telephones, interstate highways and air travel were to the 20th century. In fact, this was part of the reason that Calit2 was established five years ago.

"Telecommunications and information technology are having a 'flattening' effect on the world, enabling global collaboration on a scale never seen before in history," explains a brochure on the Institute. "This ability to collaborate is changing the rules of competitiveness and thereby having an enormous effect on society?not just ours, but other countries around the world. Which means California and the U.S. can no longer depend on an unquestioned edge in innovation heading into the future..."

To research for the future, the institute has to have the bandwidth that will be commonplace in 10 or 20 years time. For this reason the two Calit2 research buildings constructed at the cost of $100 million from the State of California -- one at UC San Diego and the other at UC Irvine -- have an unimaginable amount of bandwidth. Gigabits and gigabits are available everywhere you turn -- more than there are applications yet to utilize it.

Smarr in his presentation shows just some of the uses that bandwidth is starting to be used for at Calit2 such as high definition video collaboration. And he argues that if we want to get an inkling of what the everyday Internet will look like in the not too distant future, you just have to see how Calit2 researchers are using their vast level of bandwidth today.

It is in this context that the notion of America failing behind in bandwidth penetration takes on fresh relevance.

"Our country is quite a bit behind," said Smarr. "One of the things we are doing to help the U.S. get back into the game in a number of technologies is that over the last five years, we've built this institute to learn how to live in a world where distances are virtually eliminated."

Even talking about a gigabit per second bandwidth into the

home is conservative according to Smarr. "It is today's technology," he said. "What we need to do is get that in practice with all the companies that are going to come into being to work that market, and then get our researchers focused on the terabit per second."

Following Smarr, Gavin Newsom told conference attendees that, "I think the critical reality now is that it is the end of the world as we know it. It was one thing to talk about globalization 10 or 15 years ago and it is something else to see the rapid change today, particularly in the light of the emergence of China and the revitalization of the European Union."

Newsom added that the U.S. is losing its competitive edge. "I think it is serious and I don't think we should understate the seriousness of it," he said.

Newsom, who received an award for his support of "big broadband" connectivity in the Bay Area from conference organizers, criticized members of his own Democratic Party who were trying to put up walls or barriers. "The reality is that there are no walls or barriers that can compete with what is going on around the world," he said.

The strategy he has tried to adopt for San Francisco is based on the notion that in today's world, you can't shut out the competition. You've got to beat the competition.

Ubiquitous broadband access is vital in his view and the reason that he want to make San Francisco the first city in America with free Wi-Fi access. "There is no reason in this country that every city in America does not have free Wi-Fi," he said. "It's a disgrace that we are even talking about it today when we could have been doing it five or six years ago, when the technology was beginning to emerge."

Newsom believes that just like libraries, basic broadband access through something like Wi-Fi is a part of the fundamental rights the public has to information. "And I do believe we need to get serious and not just play the rhetorical card ... in terms of the digital divide," he added. "It is just outrageous what is going on in this country."

He argues that we need to recognize that the rest of the world has woken up and that elected officials are going to have to start to take risks and learn from their mistakes if the country is going to catch up.

For anyone interested in Digital Communities in America, spending time to view both Smarr and Newsom's presentations in full is highly recommended. They can be found here.
Blake Harris Editor