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Bill Seeks to 'Get Our Broadband House in Order'

You can't manage what you don't measure. That's the message behind Sen. Daniel Inouye's legislation filed Thursday calling for better broadband metrics to inform telecommunications policy.

The Broadband Data Improvement Act (S. 1492) would require the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to revise its formula for determining U.S. broadband penetration rates and to reevaluate its current 200 kilobits (Kbps) threshold definition of high-speed Internet.

"The first step in an improved broadband policy is ensuring that we have better data on which to build our efforts," the Hawaiian Democrat and chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee said in his floor remarks introducing the legislation. "This legislation will improve the quality of federal and state data regarding the availability of broadband service."

The FCC currently measures broadband availability by ZIP code. A single broadband subscriber in a ZIP counts as the entire ZIP code being served. Based on that formula, the FCC estimates DSL connections are available to 79 percent of the country and cable modem connections cover 93 percent of U.S. households.

Critics of the metric contend the numbers inflate U.S. broadband penetration rates, particularly in large, rural areas.

Inouye's proposal drills deeper than the current five-digit area code formula and requires broadband providers to report high-speed connections within nine-digit ZIP code areas. It would also require the FCC to create a new definition of "second-generation broadband" to reflect speeds capable of transmitting full motion, high-definition video.

"This legislation will improve the quality of federal and state data regarding the availability of broadband service," Inouye said. "This, in turn, can be used to craft policies that will increase the availability of affordable broadband service in all parts of the nation."

To supplement FCC data, the bill calls for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to develop broadband metrics that may be used to provide consumers with broadband connection cost and capability information. In addition, it directs the Census Bureau to include a question in its American Community Survey that assesses dial-up and broadband subscribership.

The proposal drew the immediate praise of Free Press Policy Director Ben Scott, a key organizer of a new coalition urging Congress to adopt a national broadband policy.

"With this bill, we would finally be able to answer key questions the Federal Communications Commission has ignored for too long," Scott said in a statement. "We would have granular data about broadband availability, adoption, cost and speed at a local level across the country."

Inouye pointed to data published last month by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) showing the U.S. has fallen to 15th in the world in broadband penetration. In 2000, the OECD ranked the U.S. fourth with the U.S. ranking falling to 12th in 2006.

"In some Asian and European countries, households have high-speed connections that are 20 times faster than ours -- for half the cost," Inouye said. "In a digital age, the world will not wait for us. It is imperative that we get our broadband house in order and our communications policy right."

Inouye estimated that universal broadband adoption would add $500 billion to the U.S. economy and create more than a million new jobs.

"With too many of our industrial counterparts ahead of us, we sorely need the kind of granular data that will inform our policies and propel us to the front of the broadband ranks," Inouye said.