Courts May Decide Who Has Obama’s Tech ‘Sputnik Moment’

Actions, not ideas, are really what's driving today's fight over broadband access.

By Jamilah King Jan 26, 2011

This is it, our Sputnik moment. President Obama used the phrase last night in his State of the Union address to emphasize the importance of technological innovation to the country’s economic future. But the lofty directives laid out in the president’s address don’t touch on the heated realities of today’s messy debate over broadband access.

Here’s what everyone agrees on: High-speed broadband Internet, and improvements to mobile wireless infrastructure in particular, are crucial. It’s driving everything from innovation in education to emergency services. The president said in Tuesday’s address:

We’re the nation that put cars in driveways and computers in offices; the nation of Edison and the Wright brothers; of Google and Facebook.  In America, innovation doesn’t just change our lives.  It is how we make our living.

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.  Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race.  And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal.  We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

Within the next five years, we’ll make it possible for businesses to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans. This isn’t just about about faster Internet or fewer dropped calls.  It’s about connecting every part of America to the digital age.  It’s about a rural community in Iowa or Alabama where farmers and small business owners will be able to sell their products all over the world.  It’s about a firefighter who can download the design of a burning building onto a handheld device; a student who can take classes with a digital textbook; or a patient who can have face-to-face video chats with her doctor.

But the question of how to make access to the Internet affordable, equitable, and open is another issue entirely. On the same day that the president gave his remarks, wireless carrier Metro PCS had joined Verizon in filing suit against the Federal Communications Commission’s recently passed net neutrality rules. As Washington Post staff writer Cecilia Kang wrote on Tuesday, the ink is barely dry on the FCC’s new rules — which were riddled with imperfections and loopholes in the first place. But companies like Verizon and Metro PCS are now accusing the FCC of trying to stifle the innovation that the president is trumpeting so loudly. And while the basis of their claims inevitably boils down to each company’s ability to make a profit, it’s these lawsuits that will ultimately whether tech innovation benefits most of the country, or merely those consumers who can afford to pay for it.