The US Slips Again In Broadband

Written and produced by John Anderson
Media Minutes: April 27, 2007

The 30-nation chartered Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's latest statistics on broadband infrastructure ranks the United States 15th in the world with regard to the deployment of broadband technology. That has Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii worried about the country's future in terms of our information economy.

Senator Inouye: "While some will debate what in fact these rankings measure, one thing that cannot be debated is the fact we continue to fall further down the list."

The United States ranked 12th in the world with regard to broadband infrastructure just a year ago, and when it comes to growth in broadband penetration alone, the U.S. ranks 20th out of 30. Speaking in front of the Senate Commerce Committee on the subject April 24th, Free Press policy director Ben Scott told lawmakers that a lack of competition between the dominant phone and cable companies, coupled with abysmal regulatory research on the broadband marketplace, means we'll continue to fall behind unless a national broadband development policy is implemented.

The first step, says Scott, is for the Federal Communications Commission to stop cooking its numbers to paint a rosy picture of broadband in America. A recent report from the FCC touts significant growth in wireless broadband as a sign that things are improving, but Scott says that's not an honest reading of reality.

Ben Scott: "Broadband-capable cell phones, like Blackberries and Trios, much as I love mine, are expensive, they are slow, and they are seldom used as substitutes for a wireline connection at home. We would be wise to shelve the hype on this point about wireless broadband, and face the reality that it is not yet a substitutable competitor."

Although the majority of Americans now have access to some sort of broadband service, whether it be DSL, cable modem, satellite, or wireless, nearly half the population still doesn't subscribe to any of them. Scott believes that's in part due to incumbent providers trying to squeeze the most profit out of the system possible.

Ben Scott: "American consumers routinely pay between seven and ten dollars a megabit. Compare that to the less than one dollar that the top nations in the world pay. In short, American consumers are paying more for less than our global counterparts. Worse still, about 60% of Americans are not yet broadband subscribers, either because it isn't available, it isn't affordable, or it simply isn't attractive enough for them to buy."

Senator Inouye says Congress will work to correct this problem with two specific pieces of legislation.

Senator Inouye: "First is the Broadband Data Development Act, to improve broadband data collection at both the federal and state levels. Second, the Advanced Information and Communications Technology Research Act, which will promote innovation here in the United States."

It's a far cry from a national push to make broadband as ubiquitous as electricity, but you have to start somewhere. Other initiatives that could seriously improve access to broadband in America include utilizing old analog TV spectrum for new wireless broadband services, protecting the rights of local and state governments to establish publicly-funded broadband networks to compete with private providers, and reforming the FCC's Universal Service Fund, which was originally set up to bring telephone service to every corner of the country, to now cover the development of broadband networks in unserved areas.