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Commentary: Investing in broadband can slash energy use

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 28, 2011 - Sometimes people can worry that there are difficult times ahead. But I am here to launch a report that clearly demonstrates America is sitting on the greatest assets you could wish for. This report, entitled "Building a 21st Century Communications Economy," shows how America can usher in a second American Century.

Natural resources, such as oil, are becoming harder to access and more expensive to purchase.

Global oil demand is projected to grow, on average, more than 20 million barrels a day by 2030, driven mostly by emerging economies. For example, the increased consumption of India and China alone is equivalent to using the entire U.S. strategic oil reserves in just one month (according to the International Energy Agency).

Economic value will increasingly reside in bits and bytes, rather than in the atoms and molecules of products and commodities.

There is enormous potential for broadband communication to free millions of people from so much unnecessary commuting to meetings.

According to a 2008 report by Connected Nation, the U.S. could expect to gain $92 billion through 2.4 million jobs created or saved annually by investing in broadband.

Total Annual Economic Impact resulting in broadband investment for Missouri would be $2,501,367,723 and jobs created or saved annually of 48,592.

Environmental opportunity: The products and services of an advanced communications network - including teleconferencing, telecommuting and e-commerce - lower environmental impact by reducing our need to travel and by reducing the materials used to produce physical objects (e.g. e-books instead of books, video-streaming instead of DVDs and especially substitutes for newspapers).

One report (the Smart 2020 U.S addendum) showed that information and communications technology (ICT) could help the U.S. reduce emissions by an estimated 13-22 percent from business as usual projections and potentially achieve gross energy and fuel savings of $140 billion-$240 billion. Robust accounting of emissions is integral to achieving a successful 21st century communications economy to ensure that carbon emissions are accurately recorded and accounted for - a truly dematerialized economy should not be limited by geography and physical boundaries.

Broadband can help build stronger, healthier communities. Lack of high-speed internet access puts people at a disadvantage when it comes to finding a job, accessing health information and keeping up with news and information. We have an opportunity to create an environment where more people can access ICT products and services that will help us grow our economy with less environmental impact while maintaining, if not improving, quality of life in cities and rural areas.

Energy Security benefits: The American Consumer Institute forecast that approximately 1 billion metric tons of green house gas emissions will be saved in the U.S. over a 10 year period through broadband based applications. If converted into energy saved, this is equivalent to approximately 2.2 billion barrels of oil, 66 percent of 2010 U.S. imports or $204 billion.

Leading local initiatives like the Climate Prosperity Project show how business can lead the way. And so can government. Yesterday I had the honor to be with Mayor Slay celebrating the leadership of the city of St Louis in establishing a baseline for carbon emissions, and selection by ICLEI (International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives) as one of 10 cities to help them develop common criteria by which all cities' sustainability efforts can be measured and evaluated.

Here in the heart of America, I hope we can, with this report, highlight again the Spirit of St Louis. That was the first airplane to link continents. At critical points in St. Louis history, you had four great means of commercial transport: River, rail, road and air.

Please think now about the all important fifth: Information and Communications Technology. This is the medium where America can lead, from AT&T to Apple, from Cisco to Google, from Microsoft to Facebook, eBay and Amazon. America already leads the communications century, with online teaching and entertainment assets producing huge export potential. From Harvard to Hollywood, America leads in the limitless resource of human imagination.

Webster University is the only U.S.-based university with a network of international residential campuses. It is extremely entrepreneurial and has been highly successful in addressing unmet needs in higher education. To increase access to both graduate and undergraduate education and provide students with a more flexible approach to learning, you launched your "WorldClassRoom" in 1999, providing online courses that students can access from anywhere in the world, provided they have an internet connection. You have 3,500 students who have chosen to learn in a fully online manner.

In contrast with traditional distance learning courses your students are part of small virtual classes, each containing up to 16 students. They can download their notes from the online web program, upload coursework, chat with fellow students, listen to audio and watch lecture videos.

These online courses give people who would otherwise not have access to this type of learning access to an extremely high quality educational experience. More than 3,500 of Webster University's 21,000 students have a military connection. Every day and every night soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Germany or other military installations are engaged in classes at Webster.

You're showing not just to your students, but to St. Louis and the world, how video conference technology coupled with broadband can deliver a first class education to anyone, anywhere, anytime. This "one-two punch" -- sophisticated video conferencing technology with a very fast connection to the internet -- will also provide greater health-care access and economic opportunities to remote areas of a state or country.

If we keep building the physical economy, and try to compete for resources, we will all lose. But if we build the 21st century broadband communications economy, we can empower citizens, in cities and rural areas, to develop education, entertainment and communications without limit.

About the Author

Paul Dickinson is executive chairman and founder of the Carbon Disclosure Project, a not-for-profit organization collecting key climate change data from more than 3,000 of the world's largest companies around the globe on behalf of 533 institutional investors with more than $71 trillion in investment capital.

Dickinson believes that harnessing profit motive as a force for good -- reducing carbon emissions and creating new economic opportunity -- can go hand-in-hand.

The article is adapted from a speech given today at Webster University.