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 others?

"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 connections.

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 economy.

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 problem.

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 feedback to [log in to unmask]