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Broadband is like a river (but not the way you think)

Richard Adler | May 4, 2015
Just as rivers were the engines of prosperity for the U.S. as it emerged as a superpower, so now is broadband an engine of innovation. We need to tune that engine to stay ahead.

french broad river sevier

In his 2014 book, The Accidental Superpower, Peter Zeihan traces the origins of America's economic prosperity to its abundance of rivers. The U.S. has more miles of navigable waterways, which provide a uniquely efficient and inexpensive means for transporting goods across a continent, than the rest of the world put together. According to Zeihan, this difference was a critical factor in the country's emergence as the world's leading superpower. And because rivers do not require large-scale efforts to build and operate, they favor decentralized development, which has encouraged local entrepreneurs, who represent a distinctive aspect of the U.S. economy. The U.S. is also blessed with many natural harbors that are another major contributor to a country's economic success.

In recent years, it has been technology -- and especially information and communications technology (ICT) -- that has provided the critical infrastructure that has promoted economic growth in the U.S. and globally. It turns out that the economic impact of ICT has been based not only on its technical characteristics, but also on the way that it has been developed and deployed.

Consider, for example, the satellite-based global positioning systems (GPS) that millions of us rely on daily to navigate the world around us. The technology was originally developed and operated by the Pentagon for the exclusive use of the military, but in 1996 the Clinton administration considered opening the system up for civilian use. At the time, the administration estimated that consumer uses of GPS could generate $8 billion in revenue and create 100,000 new jobs. This turned out to be an enormous underestimate. By 2013, more than 2 billion GPS units were in use worldwide that were generating more than $200 billion in annual revenue.

The power of platforms
A key reason that GPS was so successful was that it provided a platform that enabled many different parties to develop distinctive applications for a variety of users. The result was the creation of many novel uses that were never contemplated when the technology was first introduced. For example, by combining information on a user's location with real-time data on traffic conditions on nearby roads, a GPS system can identify the optimal route to get an individual to his or her destination in the shortest possible time. This combination has enabled travelers and commuters to avoid endless hours of sitting in traffic (one study found that access to real-time traffic information could save the average driver in the U.S. up to four days per year of driving time and reduce auto emissions by one-fifth). GPS data has also been instrumental in the development of a wide range of other commercial applications -- ranging from ride sharing to delivery services -- that depend on knowledge of an individual's location.

 

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