Broadband for all by 2007 is a no-go

David Lazarus

Sunday, July 15, 2007

In April 2004, as the election season was heating up, President Bush 
appeared at the annual convention of the American Association of 
Community Colleges in Minneapolis and declared his goal of bringing 
high-speed Internet access "to every corner of our country by the 
year 2007."

Well, here we are (in 2007). And here we aren't (fully wired for 
broadband technology). Not even close.

The Public Policy Institute of California issued a report last week 
in which it found that 47 percent of all households statewide had 
broadband Internet access as of 2005. Nationally, the figure is 
closer to 40 percent.

That's partly a factor of geography -- broadband is available to more 
urban dwellers than people in rural communities. But it's also a 
factor of wealth.

Sixty-eight percent of California households with incomes greater 
than $100,000 have broadband Internet access, the institute found. 
That percentage drops to 49 percent for households with incomes 
between $50,000 and $75,000 and to 24 percent for households earnings 
less than $25,000.

"It's been an explicit goal of the Bush administration for broadband 
access to be universal," said Jed Kolko, a research fellow at the 
Public Policy Institute of California and author of the report. 
"We're not there yet."

How big a deal is that? After all, the notion of a digital divide has 
been around since the earliest days of the Net. Does it really matter 
that some people are accessing iTunes and porn sites faster than 

"The benefits of broadband definitely go beyond music and porn," 
answered Kolko.

He observed that a variety of medical services are moving online, 
from interaction with health care practitioners to accessing records. 
This may be difficult if not impossible for people lacking broadband 

The same applies to online classes and other educational 
opportunities provided by colleges and universities, as well as an 
increasing number of government services.

"It's definitely easier to do many of these things online rather than 
in person," Kolko said. "It's also easy to imagine these services one 
day becoming available only online."

The problem, he said, is that it's expensive for broadband providers 
like AT&T and Comcast to extend high-speed Internet access to all 
neighborhoods, especially if demand, and an ability to afford the 
service, is limited in some communities.

As such, broadband is often more common in more densely populated -- 
not to mention wealthier -- neighborhoods.

At the same time, Kolko said, the relatively high cost of computers 
also serves as a barrier to bridging the digital divide. If PCs and 
laptops aren't in place, broadband service providers have little 
incentive to wire an area.

Is Wi-Fi the answer? Many cities, such as Mountain View, have taken 
steps in partnership with the private sector to bring high-speed 
wireless Internet access to local residents.

Others, such as San Francisco, are stuck trying to get the best 
possible deal from companies that would receive a virtual Wi-Fi 
monopoly within city limits.

"Wi-Fi is not a substitute for fiber," Kolko said, referring to the 
fiber-optic cables that serve as the backbone of broadband networks. 
"It's a complement. Fiber has much greater capacity."

He recommends greater collaboration between companies and public 
agencies to facilitate the laying of broadband lines. If sewer 
workers are going to be tearing up a street, for example, broadband 
providers should be given ample notice in case they want to extend 
service to the area.

For his part, the president called in his 2004 speech for more 
competition among service providers and, not surprisingly, a tax cut.

"Broadband technology must be affordable," Bush said. "In order to 
make sure it gets spread to all corners of the country, it must be 
affordable. We must not tax broadband access. If you want broadband 
access throughout the society, Congress must ban taxes on access."

Three years later, we're not even halfway toward the president's goal 
of universal broadband access. In fact, the United States now ranks 
15th worldwide for broadband penetration per 100 inhabitants, 
according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and 
Development, an international organization helping governments tackle 
the economic, social and governance challenges of a globalized 

That places us far behind the likes of Denmark, Iceland, South Korea 
and Norway.

Earlier this year, a senior executive of Verizon, Thomas Tauke, 
called for a national broadband policy to promote expansion of the 
network. "We need action in Congress and at the FCC," he said.

Specifically, Tauke is seeking government grants and loans to hasten 
broadband penetration in rural areas.

I don't know if that's the right step, but it's a starting point for 
a discussion that's long overdue -- at least if the United States 
sees itself as a player in the Internet fast lane.

The gap between haves and have-nots continues to grow, whether we're 
talking health care, education, public safety or broadband access.

"As private-sector and public Web sites are developed, their 
applications will be designed for the speed of broadband," Kolko 
observed. "The more complicated these applications become, the harder 
it will be for people to use them who don't have broadband."

He's right -- this isn't about music and porn, at least not entirely. 
The sooner our lawmakers recognize this, the sooner we can tackle the 

David Lazarus' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He 
also can be heard Saturdays, 4 to 7 p.m., on KGO Radio. Send tips or 
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