Make Room For The Future

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, June 1, 2009.]

It’s not news to anyone that the Obama Administration’s stimulus program amounts to one of the largest public works programs since the Great Depression. During that era, the economist Lord Keynes was quoted as saying that workers should be paid to dig holes in the ground and then fill them up again because the wages the workers received would create consumer demand and so boost the economy. Today’s television pundits often forget that Keynes added that “It is not reasonable, however, that a sensible community should be content to remain dependent on such fortuitous and often wasteful mitigations when once we understand the influences upon which effective demand depends.” 

Whether or not you agree with the Keynes approach to fighting the current recession, it would seem that, other things being equal, it is better to spend the money in ways that build a foundation for future economic growth than to merely jack up consumer demand.

That is perhaps why President Obama calls his program the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. So, as the stimulus funds start flowing to local and state governments around the country, the leaders of those governments should ensure that the money is treated as an investment for the future. If, for example, all we do is re-pave the highways of the 1950s, we will have wasted a tremendous opportunity.

Earlier this year, a paper prepared for the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors – the people in local governments who deal with these issues – recommended a program that would make room for the future. They called it JULIET, for Joint Underground Location of Infrastructure for Electric and Telecommunications. 

The program suggests that local governments, thinking about the future, insist that conduit for these basic utilities be built into any highway/road construction. The report notes that this might add about $10-30,000 per mile in construction costs – a fairly small percentage of typical highway mileage costs. But it would save about 70% of the costs of deploying fiber networks in a community because the largest cost in such projects is not the technology, but opening up the roads and laying down the conduit. With the stimulus construction money, the roads will already be opened up.

The deployment of fiber networks doesn’t just provide high speed Internet services, but also offers an opportunity to build in smart management of infrastructure. That same conduit, which can be used to reduce the cost of getting a high speed fiber network into your community, can also be the backbone for a network of sensors that monitor traffic on the highway and even the condition of the highways and bridges – so your public works personnel will be notified when damage is still minor and less expensive than the big emergency projects that take you and your budget by surprise. 

That same conduit can also be the backbone for smart energy management and smart grids, which can enable the government and its residents to reduce their energy costs and greenhouse gases.Around the world, local government leaders have recognized that the future will involve broadband and the smart management of the public infrastructure. Both of these should be incorporated in the plans for any stimulus spending.

Sooner or later, the recession will be over. Then will come the reviews of each government’s performance. Will you want it said that your government spent the stimulus money just to revive the consumer sector of the economy or that you also took advantage of the opportunity to gain the additional benefit of laying the foundation for the future viability of your community? 

© 2011 Norman Jacknis