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US Is in Danger of Losing Internet Leadership

Despite being the country most responsible for inventing and building the Internet, the U.S. is now in danger of being overtaken in the world it created. Thanks to poor government leadership on the issue so far this decade, the U.S. is falling further behind industrialized nations in broadband penetration.

As we proceed through one of the most interesting presidential elections in generations, we must remain focused on how these candidates will help ensure the nation’s economic competitiveness in an era where data can move so effortlessly across borders and oceans.

Remaining preeminent in Internet technology can’t just be the work of Silicon Valley and tech entrepreneurs in Seattle, Austin, New York, or Boston. We must remember that the Internet has always advanced because of ongoing investment in research and technology by federal and state governments. Today’s worrisome situation is due to the fact that the government has in recent years seemed uninterested in addressing issues like broadband access, the digital divide, and fostering new generations of technology.

The U.S. is still lagging far behind in wireless and broadband investment. U.S. broadband penetration actually dropped from 12th place to 15th among the major industrialized nations, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). As for the nation’s Internet penetration? The U.S. dropped from 4th in the world in 2001 to 15th in 2007.

Other countries understand that investing in Internet infrastructure today pays off tomorrow. Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) CEO John Chambers explains: “Japan got that broadband is the highway of the future. It’s not the solution; all they do is create the highways. Their broadband capability is 20 times the speed at one 20th the cost of our country. The ability of tying broadband to economic advantages is something Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore clearly understands. He’s going to put something called a Gigabit in every home in Singapore. A Gigabit is only about a thousand to 10 thousand times faster than what we have in our homes. That’ll change his healthcare system, create jobs. It’ll allow them, a nation of several million, to compete in the global environment in a unique way.”

London is rolling out a citywide wireless network, where anyone can get online for about ₤11 a month and keep their connection anywhere in the city. As Labour MP Derek Wyatt, head of the all-party Parliamentary Internet Group, told the Evening Standard, “Such a large-scale project is an exciting prospect for communications in the U.K., allowing people to send emails, make cheap phone calls, surf the Internet, do business, and even play games online, wherever they are.”

Like Japan and England, other countries up and down the economic ladder are moving ahead with what they recognize as necessary investments. Towards the top of the ladder, countries like Finland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, and South Korea are making huge infrastructure investments to compete on the world stage. Further down the ladder are emerging economies like India, China, and Eastern European countries that realize investments in research, development, and infrastructure are tickets to a better life in the 21st Century.

“If innovation and entrepreneurship profoundly shaped the 20th century, they will define the 21st,” explains Bruce Mehlman, who served as the Bush administration’s Assistant Commerce Secretary for Technology Policy. “Going forward, the nations with the most competitive technology-based economies will be those whose policies promote innovation, support entrepreneurship, and make sustained investments in scientific research and talent.”

At every turn in this presidential election, which is the first campaign of a new era driven by technology, we must be sure to ask: Which candidates in 2008 will recognize that the U.S. is losing ground and commit themselves to ensuring that this country — the dominant power of the 20th Century — doesn’t cede its leadership in the 21st? This is no small task, to be sure, but it’s one uniquely suited to the national ethos of innovation, groundbreaking technological advances, and continued commitment to inventing the new new thing.

— Garrett M. Graff, Editor at large at Washingtonian magazine, author of The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web, and the Race for the White House

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