Is Obama's 'US Ignite' Initiative Something to Celebrate?

US Ignite will improve the quality of internet access, make network construction and maintenance cheaper and easier, and spur innovation through a new generation of apps.

President Obama recently unveiled a new initiative called US Ignite. The government program, like most that are introduced during an election year, was met with equal amounts of excitement and criticism. So what exactly is US Ignite, what will it do, and why are many critics unconvinced? Let’s take a closer look.

The Promise of US Ignite

The US Ignite initiative is, in short, an effort to strengthen the nation’s broadband networks. The program aims to improve the quality of internet access, to make network construction and maintenance cheaper and easier, and to spur innovation through a new generation of apps. The organization explains their goals on their website:

“US Ignite is an initiative to promote US leadership in developing applications and services for ultra-fast broadband and software-defined networks. It will foster the creation of novel applications and digital experiences that will transform healthcare, education and job skills training, public safety, energy, and advanced manufacturing. By serving as a coordinator and incubator of this ecosystem, US Ignite will accelerate the adoption of next-generation networks.”

The mission of US Ignite is broken down into three parts:

  1. Spur the development of next-generation applications and digital experiences specifically designed for advanced-technology networks
  2. Maximize the potential of the GENI (Global Environment for Network Innovations) project’s national testbed network, a platform initially connecting 14 campuses and 6 cities providing symmetrical speeds of at least 100 Mbps
  3. Establish the US Ignite Partnership, a non-profit, public-private organization, to ensure new applications offer high-impact public benefit and/or high potential for commercialization

It’s obvious why such an initiative would garner the interest of high-tech corporations, but why should members of the Spark Network take an interest? Because if US Ignite accomplishes these goals, it could mean better connectivity for internet in classrooms, new apps for researchers and educators, and a higher level of technology integration across all areas of learning. But will US Ignite succeed? Not everyone is so sure.

Criticism and Concerns

According to an official statement from the White House, “The US Ignite Partnership will create a new wave of services that take advantage of state-of-the-art, programmable broadband networks running up to 100 times faster than today’s Internet.” Why, with the country over 15 trillion dollars in debt, has the government decided to spend their money on our broadband network? One of the reasons might surprise you — the US ranks 17th in the world for broadband service. In 2002, we ranked 11th, proving that other countries are clearly outpacing us when it comes to broadband.

To remain competitive, and to provide the nation with the level of connectivity that inspires education and innovation, the US government has decided to focus on improving the infrastructure of wire connections that provide broadband to homes across the country. It makes sense, but some critics are worried that the program ignores the areas in most need of improvement. PC Magazine explains:

“That’s nice, but the government is frosting a plate without a cake on it. The broadband crisis in the U.S. is about slow, expensive connections in the ‘last mile’ to people’s homes, not about backbone capacity and 3D medical imaging. The government could do something about that, but it won’t.”

Experts at The Economist pare the problem down to one major issue — lack of competition. Unlike other countries that allow a wide variety of companies to utilize the same lines and compete for customers, in many areas of the US, broadband giants enjoy a near monopoly. With each company charged with the task of laying down their own lines, and then given the ability to set their rates when they do, it’s no wonder prices are high and speeds low.

Critics of US Ignite worry that its appointment of a “Communications Trust” (a small grouping of giants like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast) will do more harm than good. By allowing these companies further control and the ability to block competitors, the ‘last mile’ of broadband connections may never improve, and prices could even rise for consumers as a result.

So should we be excited or concerned about the US Ignite program? Perhaps a little of both. Like all government programs, this one should be measured by its results, not its promises. If president Obama meets the goals he’s laid out for the initiative, it could mean a wave of new apps, new jobs, and a new era of technology integration in the workplace, the home and the classroom. But will he meet those goals? Only time will tell. In the meantime, we’ll stay cautiously optimistic!

Published June 27, 2012