by Don Willmott

The biggest news out of Washington last week not about health care was about the Internet. The FCC finally released its long-awaited nationwide broadband plan, a sweeping initiative to provide - among other things - 100 megabit-per-second Internet access to 100 million people by 2020. The FCC also proposes to deliver 1-gigabit-per-second access to places like schools, libraries and government buildings. "The national broadband plan is a 21st-century roadmap to spur economic growth and investment, create jobs, educate our children, protect our citizens, and engage in our democracy," said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

Broadband BuildingAs you look over the executive summary, it's important to remind yourself how tough this task is going to be. Look at Korea or the Netherlands, two of the most wired countries on the planet. Both are small in land area. Both are mostly urban. Both have limited competition among telecom companies. Both have years of government initiatives already in effect. America can play catch-up in policy, but the bigger challenge is running fiber to the farms of Nebraska or planting satellite dishes that actually work in the snowy mountains of Montana.

Amazingly, the government contends that this massive multi-billion-dollar plan won't cost taxpayers a cent. Instead, it will be funded by new auctions of unused airwave spectrums and by private investment. I don't believe that for a second, but like most observers in the tech arena, I say full speed ahead. Not only for all the usual reasons - increased American productivity, better communication, better global competitiveness, improved education - but also because I smell jobs.

The government does, too. That's why this plan itself was funded by stimulus money. The metaphorical connection is clear: Building the "information superhighway" we've always talked about will be the 21st-century equivalent of the 1950s push to build the interstate highway system, complete with the justifications that at least part of the impetus has to do with our very national security.

Former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt wrote in an op-ed piece last week: "Every time the FCC opens the door to a new network competing against existing networks or to any new business opportunity, it is inevitably endorsing new hiring by the new business." That was certainly true when cell phone use blasted off in the mid '90s and when ISPs proliferated in the late '90s. Hundreds of thousands of new jobs were created. Hunt also pointed out that, "From 1997 to 2007, with essentially zero federal help in terms of appropriations or tax breaks, investors pumped $850 billion into new communication networks¿. More than one-fifth of the 21 million jobs created in the '90s were directly or indirectly derived from the information and communications revolution."

Hundt's not alone in his enthusiasm. AT&T, Google, Intel, Microsoft, and Vonage all weighed in with messages of support for the plan. In fact, one of the few dissenters I could find was current FCC commissioner Robert McDowell, a Bush appointee who said, in reference to one aspect of the plan that would dictate how future set-top boxes are designed: "I caution the commission to tread gingerly. "Technological mandates by the government almost never result in robust innovation."

He's probably right, but this is one of those projects that remind what government is ultimately for: To do for the people what the people can't do for themselves, like build highways - or information superhighways. As Hundt said, the idea isn't ultimately to create government jobs, but to create private-sector jobs that build on the new technological infrastructure. What would a 25-fold improvement in data throughput mean for innovation and jobs? Who really knows? We'll find out someday. The question is whether we can all agree that we want that someday to come sooner rather than later.