Does the US Need a New Broadband Policy?

Ken Hubbard worries that broadband speeds in the U.S. aren't adequate for the next wave of Web content.

Hubbard, president of networking startup InteliCloud Technology, said he's generally not a fan of large government programs, but it may be time for the U.S. Congress to look at ways to encourage roll out of faster broadband services.

Internet users are demanding more video and high-bandwidth applications, and high-definition video is on the way, said Hubbard, whose company is set to release a network appliance it dubs "network in a box." "The infrastructure is not strong enough to support the growth that needs to happen," he said. "[Broadband] has got to become ubiquitous."

Hubbard's concerns have been echoed by several groups in recent months. Groups calling for a wide-ranging U.S. broadband policy say the nation is falling behind others in key broadband statistics. One problem, however, is that the debate over broadband policy spills over into many issues, including concerns about a lack of competition and net neutrality.

In March 2004, President George Bush called for broadband to be universally available across the country by 2007 -- a goal that has not been reached. Bush's broadband policy also focuses on keeping Internet service free of taxes and deregulating broadband providers, initiatives that largely came from Congress or the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

The call for a stronger broadband policy is far from unanimous. Broadband providers say they're spending billions of dollars a year to expand and improve their networks. And an FCC decision to deregulate telecom-based broadband providers, allowing them to stop sharing parts of their networks with competitors, is only three years old, others say.

Critics of the FCC's deregulation approach say it has eliminated most competition. But deregulation is "really bearing fruit" and should be given more time to work, said Bret Swanson, senior fellow at the conservative think tank, the Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF).

In many cases, the debate about broadband policy gets wrapped up in related debates about net neutrality and broadband traffic management, Swanson added. While several groups have called for the FCC or Congress to prohibit broadband providers from blocking or slowing some Internet traffic, these net neutrality rules could limit legitimate traffic management techniques, causing network congestion, he said.

Passing net neutrality rules could "halt what is a very positive solution right now," he said. "The way a so-called new broadband policy is talked about seems to not be a step forward."

Some advocates of a new broadband policy also talk about the need for more competition, but because of the cost of building networks, a significant increase in competitors isn't likely, Swanson added. The U.S. may be better served focusing on two large, robust networks with wireless and satellite service filling in the holes, he said.

"You're never going to have dozens or hundreds of broadband providers to your home," he added.

Advocates of a broader national policy say broadband brings huge economic benefits to the U.S. -- a 7 percent increase in broadband adoption would create 2.4 million new jobs and have an annual economic impact of US$134 billion, according to a study released in February by Connected Nation, a nonprofit group focused on improving broadband adoption across the U.S.

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