As I was personally experiencing the fury of Hurricane Sandy a few weeks ago, I thought of the Internet Highway System and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Sandy brought into sharp relief how dependent so many of us have become on digital infrastructures, and the Internet in particular, for almost every aspect of our life and work. Sandy also demonstrated how inadequate and fragile our digital infrastructures are given our increasing dependence on them. If President Eisenhower was around today, I reflected in moments of frustration, I was convinced that he would be a strong advocate for building a world class national broadband infrastructure, just like he championed the Internet Highway System over half a century ago.
The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act was signed into law by President Eisenhower in June of 1956. Most everyone would agree that it has contributed greatly to the economic success of the US over the past fifty years. But, in addition to economic development, one of the main reasons President Eisenhower championed the Interstate Highway System was national defense. While serving as Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II, he saw first hand the role played by the German Autobahn network in its national defense, and felt that the US needed such a modern highway system to provide key ground transport routes for military supplies and troop deployments in case of an emergency or external threat.
Getting ready for Sandy, and then feeling its power was very different from watching a far away disaster on television. I got off fairly easily compared with so many in the New York Metropolitan Area, including our town in Connecticut, whose homes were flooded or were seriously damaged by falling trees. We lost a few large trees, one of which damaged part of a fence. The power in our area was out for almost a week, but, like an increasing number of my neighbors in our woodsy area, we have adjusted to the frequent power losses by installing a standby generator, so our house had electricity and heat during the power outage. We also lost cable and our cable-based Internet access. My wireless mobile phone was barely usable other than very early in the morning before most of the town was awake. For a couple of days, even that did not work.
Over 22 million people live in the Tri-state New York Metropolitan Area. The region is arguably the world’s center of commerce and banking, home to almost 20 percent of Fortune 500 companies. New York City is ranked at the top by just every survey of the world’s most competitive cities, particularly because of its appeal to a wide range of businesses and talented people.
But, as Sandy proved to us all, our physical infrastructure is antiquated, and our digital infrastructure lags far behind the growing importance of the Internet in the economy and in our personal lives. With few exceptions, the situation is not much better across the US. The infrastructures of just about all US metropolitan areas are falling behind the rest of the world.
The Global Competitiveness Report 2010-2011 of the World Economic Forum analyzes the competitiveness of 139 different countries and assigns a Global Competitiveness Index to each based on over 100 indicators grouped into twelve pillars of economic competitiveness. Infrastructure is one of its basic pillars: “Extensive and efficient infrastructure is critical for ensuring the effective functioning of the economy, as it is an important factor determining the location of economic activity and the kinds of activities or sectors that can develop in a particular economy. Well-developed infrastructure reduces the effect of distance between regions, integrating the national market and connecting it at low cost to markets in other countries and regions.”
Separately, the report looks at ICT infrastructure as the cornerstone of its technological readiness pillar. “The technological readiness pillar measures the agility with which an economy adopts existing technologies to enhance the productivity of its industries, with specific emphasis on its capacity to fully leverage information and communication technologies (ICT) in daily activities and production processes for increased efficiency and competitiveness. ICT has evolved in the general purpose technology of our time, given the critical spillovers to the other economic sectors and their role as industry-wide enabling infrastructure. Therefore ICT access and usage are key enablers of countries’ overall technological readiness.”
The US ranked fourth in overall competitiveness, behind Switzerland, Sweden and Singapore, - a decline of two places from its 2009-2010 rank. In the infrastructure pillar, the US is ranked 15. It ranks 17 in the technological readiness pillar. Looking a bit deeper at the components of each pillar, the US is ranked 27 in the quality of its overall infrastructure, 29 in Internet bandwidth and 71 in mobile phone subscriptions. These are not good rankings for the world’s leading economic power.
Growth and Renewal in the United States: Retooling America’s Economic Engine, a report published in February of 2011 by the McKinsey Global Institute, arrives at similar conclusions. “US infrastructure is not only inadequate to meet the needs of a dynamic, growing, and productive economy, but its quality has been in relative decline. The United States today ranks 23rd in the quality of its infrastructure. There is major scope for the United States to identify and implement leading-edge practices from project selection to financing and delivery, sometimes through public-private partnerships.” Most disturbing is the finding that “Over the last decade, the US ranking in infrastructure quality fell from 7th to 23rd.”
Then there is the question of national security, including the ability to handle serious emergencies, whether caused by natural disasters or terrorist acts. If nothing else, Hurricane Sandy highlighted New York's aging, subpar physical infrastructure, as well as its inadequate, fragile digital infrastructure. In the Internet age, people should be able to continue to conduct business around the world and keep the economy functioning by working from home when unable to travel because public transportation is shut down. This was hardly the case.
First of all, our mobile phones and computers need electricity to function, and with the power outages, many people were not able to recharge their devices. There were quite a number of newspaper stories of people wandering the streets of New York City looking for a place to plug in and recharge their mobile phones. In my own town, the Westport Library never lost power or Internet access, but its 80 or so Internet ports, more than adequate on a normal day, did not begin to satisfy the demands of a town where must of its residents had lots power and Internet access. Wireless service was equally inadequate. If Sandy was a test of emergency preparedness, my town, along with most of the New York Metropolitan did not get a passing grade.
“I'm hopeful that not only will we rebuild this city and metropolitan area but use this as an opportunity to build it back smarter. There have been a series of extreme weather events. That is not a political statement; that is a factual statement. Anyone who says there is not a change in weather patterns is denying reality. We have a new reality when it comes to these weather patterns; we have an old infrastructure, we have old systems. That is not a good combination and that is one of the lessons I will take from this, personally.”
Sandy clearly shows the need to embrace and accelerate the implementation of the National Broadband Plan proposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in March of 2010. At the time, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski wrote in a Washington Post OpEd:
“This vision of world-leading 21st-century broadband networks and their benefits will not occur spontaneously. While the United States invented the Internet, when it comes to broadband we have fallen behind as other nations have raced ahead. Some studies show us to be as low as 15th in the world in broadband adoption; others have us higher, but none puts us even close to where we need to be.”
“Our nation is at a high-tech crossroads: Either we commit to creating world-leading broadband networks to make sure that the next waves of innovation and business growth occur here, or we stand pat and watch inventions and jobs migrate to those parts of the world with better, faster and cheaper communications infrastructures. History teaches us that nations that lead technological revolutions reap enormous rewards. We can lead the revolution in wired and wireless broadband. But the moment to act is now.”
Like the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s, such a national broadband infrastructure is the kind of initiative that you would expect the federal government to lead. This is indeed the case in just about all countries around the world. While I am hoping that that the federal government will also play a key role in the US, I worry that in our current political climate, it will be hard to get it done given the nature of Congress and the US will keep falling further behind.
In the end, cities have the most to lose if they can’t attract companies, jobs and talented individuals because their infrastructures are not competitive. Hopefully, metropolitan areas around the country, including my own New York Tri-State region, will do whatever is necessary to modernize their infrastructures, working closely with local, state and federal governments as well as with the business community.
Let’s hope that Sandy will go down in history as a much needed wake-up call that significantly accelerated the development of smart, 21st century infrastructures across the country.