RealTime IT News

National Broadband: More Purpose Than Religion

WASHINGTON -- A parade of speakers from a diverse collection of advocacy groups, government agencies and academia, rounded out the case for greater broadband adoption here at a policy symposium hosted by the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA), a group dedicated to advancing a national broadband strategy.

"There's no investment America can make that is likely to pay a better dividend than investment in broadband infrastructure," declared Larry Irving, co-chairman of the IIA.

That's become a popular topic in the nation's capital these days as a new administration with an ambitious tech agenda prepares to take office.

The broad-stroke idea that more broadband is a good thing for the country is about as controversial as politicians kissing babies -- both presidential candidates pledged to make broadband deployment a priority. But within that fuzzy framework, the issue gets a little muddy.

For instance, most of the speakers here at the National Press Club Wednesday extolled the virtues of broadband, even talked of it as a national imperative, but only with a clear goal in mind.

"If we have limited government resources, we shouldn't put out policies that are designed to be so grandiose, but should be micro-targeted to where society has a compelling public interest to make a difference," said Rey Ramsey, CEO of One Economy, a nonprofit group that works to deliver broadband to low-income communities and train people how to use the technology.

Ramsey has worked with mayors and city officials around the country, advising on projects such as the failed municipal Wi-Fi efforts in Philadelphia and San Francisco. The lesson he learned was that it is not enough to simply introduce broadband to a community without a compelling social or civic payoff.

"It's focusing the nation and saying, 'Let's be clear about what we want to do.'"

More demand than supply

To Ramsey and others, the problem is more one of demand than supply. The demand-side view claims that service is available to the majority of Americans who don't have a broadband connection, but they choose not to subscribe for a variety of reasons. For some people, cost is the barrier. Others either don't own a computer or don't see the benefit in connecting to the Internet. For millions of others, dial-up service still meets their needs.

The fear that the United States is losing its competitive edge because other countries are outpacing it in broadband adoption has become a rallying cry for groups urging the government to help bridge the digital divide. Of the several recent studies ranking nations in broadband adoption, one of the most commonly cited came last year from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which put the United States at No. 15.

That study came as a wake-up call for many, but the ardent free marketeers argue that those rankings paint a misleading picture.

"The OECD rankings are a distraction," George Ford, chief economist for the Phoenix Center think tank, said at a separate policy talk on Tuesday. Ford quibbles with the methodology of the study, which measures adoption on a per-capita basis, rather than per household. He also pointed out that the United States has a similar international ranking in wireline telephone service.

But the demand-siders don't claim that the broadband problem is a myth, or that it has been solved. Rather it is a challenge that they are leery of throwing government money at, warning that an untargeted subsidy could produce an economic debacle without channeling the money to the places it would do the most good.

Instead, as the next administration tries to craft a national broadband strategy, the speakers at the IIA event suggested it keep high-speed Internet adoption in mind with every policy decision if faces. The Department of Housing and Urban Development might only fund affordable housing if the developer committed to make it broadband-ready, for instance.

Next page: High profile issues for broadband adoption