A new report from the higher education community calls on the federal government, state governments, and the private sector to come together to solve what has been called a U.S. “crisis” in high-speed internet connectivity. The report’s findings differed sharply from assertions contained in a document issued several days later by the U.S. Commerce Department.

The 74-page report, “A Blueprint for Big Broadband,” was released last week by Educause, a nonprofit association working to advance higher education through the use of information technology. It says the demand for bandwidth in the United States has accelerated well beyond the capacity of current broadband networks—a problem that has enormous implications for U.S. education. “Big Broadband” refers to the report’s vision: nationwide, open access to high-speed internet service.

In recent years, the advancement of internet applications such as video conferencing, video streaming, voice-over-IP telephony, gaming, distance education, and social networking has effectively “outstripped the network,” says Wendy Wigen, an Educause policy analyst and the report’s lead researcher.

To ensure universal access to the full range of services and opportunities offered by the internet, the report calls for greater broadband services with a minimum capacity of 100 megabits per second (Mbps).

At U.S. colleges and universities, Wigen says, the continued growth of distance education is dependent on better, faster, and more reliable internet service, especially to students’ homes. At colleges and universities, Wigen reports, the greatest “bottleneck” occurs in what she calls the “last mile or the first mile”—the connection directly to the campus or to the student.

This is dangerous, Wigen cautions, because campuses historically have been the country’s hubs of innovation. With 80 percent of U.S. students and nearly 100 percent of U.S. faculty and staff living off campus, America can’t afford to have the students and staff conducting the high-level research that puts the nation ahead using dial-up internet service, Wigen says.

Most developed nations have deployed or are deploying big broadband networks that provide faster connections at cheaper prices than those available in the U.S., the report says. Japan already has announced a national commitment to build fiber networks to every home and business, according to the report, and countries that have smaller economies and more rural territory than the United States, such as Finland, Sweden, and Canada, have “better broadband.”

Foreign governments have found the resources to subsidize widely deployed broadband in many cases by treating broadband as “necessary infrastructure,” Wigen says, much like highways, roads, electrical grids, hospitals, and airports.

To take the burden from any one part of the economy, the report recommends a new shared “universal broadband fund” (UBF) to cover the approximately $100 billion it would cost to build out U.S. networks, which would involve building local fiber networks to every home and business in America. The federal government, state governments, and private industry each could contribute one-third of the cost, the report suggests.

Since 2002, the Canadian government has had a strong policy to get broadband out to everyone, Wigen says. Canada’s public-private partnership model works much like the proposed UBF would, with one-third of the funding provided by the federal government, one-third by the individual province, and the remaining one-third by the private sector.

The Educause report calls for a plan that (a) includes the coordinated effort of elected leaders; (b) is implemented by a core of federal, state, and local officials, with guidance from an advisory committee of commercial and nonprofit institutions; (c) includes tax incentives to spur private-sector broadband investment; (d) encourages public-sector investment by municipalities and states; (e) ensures that the public is made aware of the availability of broadband services; and (f) provides additional funding to bolster U.S. investment in long-term telecommunications research.

The return on “big broadband” would be tremendous, Wigen argues. For one thing, such a network would be less expensive to operate than the existing copper network, she says, resulting in actual cost savings of several billion dollars per year. Furthermore, because fiber is “scalable upwards to an almost unlimited capacity,” the investment in building these networks could provide broadband connectivity for several decades. And finally, once the networks are built, the need for additional funding would end, and the private and/or public entity that receives the funding would own and operate the network without the need for ongoing federal subsidies.

The Educause report came just a few days before the Bush administration released a report of its own, touting its progress in rolling out affordable access to high-speed internet service across the United States.

“Networked Nation: Broadband in America,” prepared by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), is an upbeat assessment of the administration’s efforts to spur growth and competition in the high-speed internet market. It concludes that the objective of affordable access to broadband for all has been realized “to a very great degree.”

The NTIA report drew its conclusion using data from the Federal Communications Commission and other sources. The FCC reported that more than 99 percent of all U.S. ZIP codes received broadband service from at least one provider by the end of 2006.

Critics, however, say the FCC’s data are misleading. A broadband provider has to serve only a single residence in a ZIP code for it to be counted. Also, the FCC defines broadband as 200 kilobits per second. That’s about four times the speed of a good dial-up connection—barely fast enough to stream video.

“The notion that a 200-kilobit connection is broadband is … ludicrous,” said Derek Turner, research director for Free Press, a nonprofit public interest group that studies media and technology issues.

Educause released its report Jan. 29 during pre-conference events at the State of the Net Conference held in Washington, D.C. During that event, one FCC Commissioner, Michael J. Copps, a Democrat, thanked Educause for encouraging the federal government to take the lead in broadband development. Copps said his only wish was that “the FCC had [written] it.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Links:

Educause

“A Blueprint for Big Broadband”

State of the Net Conference

Federal Communications Commission

“Networked Nation: Broadband in America”