More than Rhetoric Needed to Close Broadband Gap

Posted on February 1, 2008 - 8:06am.

from: Benton Foundation

More than Rhetoric Needed to Close Broadband Gap

Bush Administration's Disputed Claims that High-Speed Internet Access is Universal and Affordable

In 2004, during a campaign appearance in Albuquerque, New Mexico, President Bush set an ambitious and laudable goal, he said, "We ought to have universal affordable access for broadband technology by the year 2007."

On January 30, 2008, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration released Networked Nation: Broadband in America ( ), a report that concludes that "a reasonable assessment of the available data indicates" that President Bush's 2004 objective of affordable access to broadband for all by 2007 has been realized "to a very great degree." The report relies on data from the Federal Communications Commission which assumes if one person in a US zip code can subscribe to a high-speed Internet access service, than everyone in that zip code has broadband service available to them. The FCC also defines broadband service as 200 kilobits per second, an inadequate speed to use the Internet's bandwidth-intensive services like streaming video.

Buried in the report is this statement: "The lack of a single authoritative data set makes it difficult to establish with certainty whether broadband has become ubiquitous."

The following statement can be attributed to Benton Foundation Chairman Charles Benton on behalf of the foundation, the Center for Creative Voices in Media, and Florida PIRG:

There is clear consensus that our nation’s ability to compete in the high speed broadband world is essential to our economic future. Unfortunately, the Administration and the Federal Communications Commission continue to rely upon inadequate, highly-flawed data to assess the marketplace for high-speed Internet access. The Administration's "mission Accomplished" rhetoric does not match reality:

* According to a September 2007 Pew Internet & American Life Project phone survey, roughly half of all Americans don’t have broadband at home. Half is far from universal.
* Fewer than 25% of New Yorkers in rural areas have access to broadband service and nearly two-thirds of people living in New York City lack access to affordable, high-speed broadband. Some New York City neighborhoods -- like Sunset Park, Red Hook and Hunts Point -- don't even have affordable access beyond a dial-up connection
* Ten percent of Chicago area residents do not even have access to DSL service
* Broadband growth in the US is slowing -- down 15 percent from last year's pace
* The Administration has argued that while the U.S. may be behind in percentage of subscribers, we are the #1 in the world in total number of subscribers – thus we have won. But news from China suggests that it now has 122 million broadband users -- the highest number in the world.

When the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) first collected data on broadband penetration in 2001, the US ranked 4th among the 30 nations surveyed. In June 2004, President Bush noted that America then ranked 10th amongst the industrialized world in per capita broadband penetration. "That's not good enough," he said at the US Department of Commerce. "We don't like to be ranked 10th in anything. The goal is to be ranked 1st when it comes to per capita use of broadband technology. It's in our nation's interest. It's good for our economy." According to OECD June 2007 data, After several years of steady decline in the rankings, the US ranked 15th among industrialized nationals in broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants..

We shouldn't be complacent with 15th or even 2nd place in the world.

So why has so little progress been made, despite the Administration's aggressive statements in 2004 in support of a competitive broadband marketplace?

The Administration launched this mission, lacking intelligence about the status of broadband -- a weapon of massive empowerment. Rather than offering an exit strategy for getting us out of the bottom of the world rankings, the Federal Communications Commission several years ago proposed a surge of deregulatory actions that have yet to shown any progress. In fact this surge may have actually contributed further to our declining world rankings. Rather than putting any new proposals on the table, too often the Administration have attacked the messenger (OECD) while assured us that we are making progress, and suggesting we stay the course. For example, the current U.S. duopoly of telcos and cable companies and a lack of choice in broadband providers in some areas were forged by a misguided 2002 Federal Communications Commission decision referred to as Brand X. This had the effect of shutting out competitive cable broadband providers from the market. As a result, of the estimated 58.2 million broadband connections in the U.S., seven companies -- AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., Qwest Communications International Inc., Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable Inc., Charter Communications Inc. and Cox Communications Inc., the largest cable modem and DSL carriers -- control a whopping 45.7 million (79%) of those lines as of the end of 2006.

Despite the Administration's failure, other policy makers are attempting to forge ahead. The Wall Street Journal reported in November that -- tired of waiting for the federal government to act on President Bush's promise to make high-speed Internet connections available to every home -- a number of states have taken on the task themselves. Several proposals are now moving through Congress that would improve the way the FCC collects and measures data on broadband penetration.

In 2004, President Bush said, “It's important that we stay on the cutting edge of technological change, and one way to do so is to have a bold plan for broadband.” To restore the country’s Internet competitiveness and truly achieve a universal broadband goal, we must:

1) create a national broadband strategy with set benchmarks, deployment timetables, a commitment to demand drivers, and measurable thresholds;
2) develop federal policies to transition us from analog to fully digital communication technologies – making broadband based communication as universal as telephones are today; and
3) extend broadband's reach to those who can benefit most and harness its potential in order to boost education, reduce health care costs, encourage telecommuting, reduce greenhouse emissions, transform our emergency communication infrastructure, improve homeland security, and raise standards of living.

To do anything less leaves us ill-prepared to tackle the grand challenges that America faces over the horizon.

Our nation's commitment to ubiquitous and affordable communications has never been more important than now. Making broadband as ubiquitous as telephone service and transitioning from analog to digital networks must be key goals in the 21st century. The principle is simple, powerful, and fundamentally important to our nation's future competitiveness and to consumers' future opportunities. Standing at the threshold of an information technology revolution, we should strengthen our guarantee of universal, affordable communication access for all Americans based on reality, not rhetoric.

The mission of the Benton Foundation is to articulate a public interest vision for the digital age and to demonstrate the value of communications for solving social problems.

The Center for Creative Voices in Media is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to preserving in America's media the original, independent, and diverse creative voices that enrich our nation's culture and safeguard its democracy.

Florida PIRG is an advocate for the public interest. The group has a history of standing up to powerful special interests on issues to stop identity theft, fight political corruption, provide safe and affordable prescription drugs, and strengthen voting rights.