Broadband for all by 2007 is a no-go
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
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
"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,"
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
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
For his part, the president called in his 2004 speech for more
competition among service providers and, not surprisingly, a tax
"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
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
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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