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Benton: Universal broadband a necessity

As Congress debates an economic stimulus package that includes funding to boost the number of people in the United States with broadband internet access, at least one organization says access alone isn’t enough–and it’s urging the Obama administration to adopt strategies to stimulate broadband demand.

The Benton Foundation, a private foundation that works to ensure media and telecommunications serve the public interest and enhance democracy, issued its urgent call to action–titled "Action Plan for America: Using Technology and Innovation to Address Our Nation’s Critical Challenges"–before Congress drafted its stimulus legislation.

The report has taken on new importance, however, as broadband funding has become mired in a tense political debate on Capitol Hill.

The report calls for robust, affordable, and universal broadband access to the internet, because, according to what the foundation calls "persuasive research," universal and affordable broadband is "the key to our nation’s citizens reaching for–and achieving–the American Dream."

Universal, affordable broadband access is critical to ensuring that students of all ages can take classes from home, for example–and it’s necessary for students to take advantage of online video instruction while at home.

But the report also explains how America has failed to deploy universal broadband–which has caused the U.S. to decline in international rankings of broadband quality, availability, and price as compared with many other industrialized nations in the global economy.

"With people losing their jobs, their retirement, with the costs of health care and higher education continuing to rise above the ability of many Americans to pay, with global climate change threatening our world, why should high-speed internet access be a priority?" asks Charles Benton, the foundation’s chairman and CEO. "Because universal, affordable broadband is more than an end in itself; it is also a means to spur economic growth, boost the competitiveness of the U.S. in the global economy, and enable all our citizens to reach for the American Dream in the Digital Age."

The report attributes the failure to implement universal, affordable broadband to an absence of federal leadership under the Bush administration.

According to Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, chair of the media reform group Free Press, and a writer for Slate magazine, "Broadband is no one’s responsibility–and the buck keeps getting passed between industry, Congress, the White House, and the Federal Communications Commission."

Citing a report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), the Benton Foundation notes that the U.S. is quickly falling behind other industrialized nations in broadband deployment, speed, and price. From a ranking of fourth among the 30 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in broadband penetration in 2001, the U.S. had fallen to 15th in 2007.

America also ranks 15th among OECD countries in broadband speed, averaging 4.9 megabits per second (Mbps), and 11th in terms of the average cost of broadband per Mbps.

In fact, according to the ITIF report, most of the leading countries in Asia and Europe have adopted their own national broadband strategies and are aggressively building out their broadband deployment, often using ultra-fast 100 Mbps fiber-to-the-home connections that are more than 100 times faster than the FCC’s newly revised classification of "basic broadband" speed.

Such fiber connections, similar to Verizon’s FiOS project, "render obsolete the cable and DSL broadband connections that dominate broadband service in the U.S.," the Benton report says.

Citing another report, "Home Broadband Adoption 2008," from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the foundation’s call to action explains that for Americans who live in households with incomes under $200,000 annually, broadband penetration has actually fallen to 25 percent in early 2008 compared to 28 percent a year earlier.

"These are households that could benefit dramatically from the continuing education, job training, and job search opportunities that access to broadband provides," says the Benton report.

A new Sputnik moment

The report calls on the new administration to launch a well-planned, concerted national effort–paralleling the ones that deployed telephone service, electricity, and interstate highways–to deploy affordable, robust broadband to every U.S. household.

President Obama has indicated that universal broadband access is one of his administration’s top priorities.

In his inauguration speech, he called for the building of "the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together."

On the White House web site, the new administration says it plans to deploy next-generation broadband to "work towards true broadband in every community in America through a combination of reform in the Universal Service Fund, better use of the nation’s wireless spectrum, promotion of next-generation facilities, technologies, and applications, and new tax and loan incentives. America should lead the world in broadband penetration and internet access."

The stimulus package that Congress is now debating calls for anywhere from $6 billion to $9 billion in broadband investment. And while the Benton Foundation sees this as a good start, it notes that funding is just one part of a larger strategy to get broadband service into every home.

"We see the $6 [billion] to $9 billion included in the stimulus package as a possible down payment on a comprehensive approach to connecting the nation," said Kevin Taglang, senior policy analyst for the foundation. "We are firm believers that … it would be impossible for one [stimulus] bill to address all the issues. That is why our report calls for the creation of a President’s Council on Broadband, Innovation, and Competitiveness."

The foundation would like to see such a council develop a coordinated National Broadband Strategy (NBS), which it defines as a "coherent road map of policies and goals that complement and accelerate efforts in the marketplace to achieve universal adoption of affordable, high-speed internet connections."

Although stimulating broadband supply is necessary, the foundation says that alone is not "sufficient."

A national broadband strategy also must promote initiatives to stimulate broadband demand, it said.

"The Benton Foundation applauds President Obama’s commitment to improving our information infrastructure," said Benton’s report. "But that commitment to broadband deployment does not negate the need for a NBS. To the contrary, it makes it compelling for the new administration to take the lead in crafting a well-convinced and thoughtful NBS by January 1st, 2010."

The Pew survey found that 57 percent of Americans subscribe to broadband at home, while 9 percent rely on dial-up service. Others go online elsewhere–but 25 percent simply don’t use the internet at all.

What’s more, the survey found that 51 percent of today’s dial-up and non-internet users say they don’t subscribe to broadband because they are just not interested–not because it’s not available where they live.

Senate Democrats have been seeking $250 million in stimulus funding to promote broadband adoption. Proponents say those efforts could include helping poor people buy computers and teaching people how to navigate the web. But if the goal is to increase broadband adoption, "does that belong in a stimulus package?" said John Horrigan, associate director for research at Pew. "I don’t know."

For its part, the Benton Foundation is asking supporters of universal broadband to visit and express support for its Action Plan for America, while giving a brief description of the report or a link to it.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


Benton Foundation’s Action Plan for America

Information Technology and Innovation Foundation

PEW Internet & American Life Project

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