The business case for a national broadband policy

March 16, 2010, 7:11 PM UTC

That thump you heard in the middle of the night, was the 376-page National Broadband Plan finally being dropped (you can get your very own copy or just scan through the executive summary here).

Not pulling any political punches, broadband is compared to electricity in the conclusion to the report crafted by Federal Communications Chairman Julius Genachowski and his team. It reads:

In 1938, President Roosevelt traveled to Gordon Military College in Barnesville, Georgia, to speak at the dedication of a local utility. “Electricity is a modern necessity of life, not a luxury,” the President told the audience, “That necessity ought to be found in every village, in every home and on every farm in every part of the wide United States.”

He added, “Six years ago, in 1932, there was such talk about the more widespread and the cheaper use of electricity.” But words did not matter until the country, “reduced that talk to practical results.” Broadband, too, is a modern necessity of life, not a luxury. It ought to be found in every village, in every home and on every farm in every part of the United States.

It’s a showy finale to a document that is likely to be pulled apart and put back together by Congress. But it’s also correct.

For those of us who have gotten used to broadband, the comparison to electricity is apt. No matter how pokey the speeds here in the United States (most broadband connections via cable and DSL are in the range 3 to 4 megabits per second) once broadband is part of your life it’s unthinkable to do without it.

Yet, primarily because of cost, according to studies, 35% of U.S. households are without a broadband connection. In the plan, which was mandated as part of the federal stimulus plan, the FCC seeks to bring 100-megabit-per-second access to 100 million homes by 2020, and even faster connections to libraries and schools.

While being able to stream Netflix movies faster is an appealing idea, it’s the future of work that is the reason why increasing broadband speed and adoption are necessary. At last summer’s Brainstorm Tech conference, one of the big themes that was discussed by the CIOs and CTOs of some of the nation’s largest companies was the changing nature of work and our relationships to organizations. Xerox (XRX) CTO Sophie Vandebroek believes that in the future most of us will be attached to companies as contractors, working where we please. Maynard Webb, CEO of LiveOps, is building a business on that premise, running virtual call centers with thousands of contractors working when and where they please.

Broadband is vital to that kind of economy, and the kind of desirable work that increasingly involves moving bits back and forth, rather than physical goods. It’s going to be hard to get to the future that the FCC envisions. Those that own the spectrum required to boost speeds,  should be compensated for it. Opening up the pipes of carriers so that competitors can offer broadband service will be a tough sell but probably necessary.

The biggest technology trends, including cloud computing and mobile Internet, already assume broadband connections. Other parts of the world are far ahead of the U.S. in broadband adoption and speed,  especially in Asia, which happens to have the most dynamic economies in the world. Coincidence? Hardly. The U.S is playing catch-up in this tech arena. Today started the clock ticking on crafting a solution to our broadband woes. Let’s hope it doesn’t take too long to get resolved. Our jobs increasingly depend on it.

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