Does the US Need a New Broadband Policy?

Critics of current policies say the U.S. is behind several other countries in broadband adoption, and many rural areas have little or no access to broadband. In addition, U.S. broadband users pay more for broadband and have access to slower speeds than several other nations, they say.

U.S. broadband providers say they are rolling out faster broadband -- Verizon, AT&T and Qwest are all moving forward with fiber-based deployments. But Hubbard, whose company will aim its first product at providers of Internet-based services, doesn't see it happening fast enough to keep up with demand.

"To me, [the broadband] industry has had a shot at it, and they haven't done anything with it," he said.

Critics say Bush's universal broadband goal was largely unsuccessful, with many rural areas still without service or with little competition. The California State Broadband Task Force, in a January report, found that about 4 percent of the state's households, or 1,975 communities, didn't have access to broadband. About 1.4 million [m] California residents, more people than live in 11 other states, don't have broadband service, the report said.

The California report is one of several released in recent months calling for a more comprehensive broadband policy in the U.S. The California task force focused on several things the state could do to encourage broadband rollout, including issuing state bonds to finance broadband expansion, 10 percent or 20 percent tax breaks for providers building networks in rural areas, and lifting the spending cap on a rural telecommunications program already in place.

Educause, a group focused on the benefits of IT on higher education, took a broader approach when it issued its Blueprint for Big Broadband in January. Educause called for a $100 billion investment in broadband in the U.S., with the federal government, state governments and private industry each paying for a third of the costs. The federal government would pay about $8 billion a year for four years under the Educause plan.

The goal is 100M bps to 1G bps of broadband speed available to each U.S. resident and business, said Wendy Wigen, an Educause policy analyst. Educause wants "deployment with a big D, so to speak," she said. "When [government sources] quote 95 percent access ... it is for DSL or cable modem, which we feel is not sufficient for the Internet demand that is just around the corner."

Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have both talked about the importance of broadband, Wigen noted.

But Robert Atkinson, president of tech-focused think tank the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), suggested that big government programs aren't likely to gain traction in the U.S. An ITIF report this month compared U.S. broadband policies to several other countries, and found that nations such as Japan and South Korea created mandates for broadband providers that would have little chance of approval in the U.S.

Japan required DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) providers to rent out their lines to competitors at low prices, a policy the U.S. has moved away from. South Korea basically required broadband providers to build out the networks nationwide, Atkinson said. Broadband providers in those countries are "in a different world," he said.

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