Our nation is increasingly dependent upon advanced communications services. To ensure the efficient delivery of vital information to markets, schools, hospitals, and emergency services, no goal is more important than the widespread deployment of advanced Internet service. None of this is possible without the critical infrastructure known as "broadband." If advanced communications service is the lifeblood of our communities, broadband is the indispensable circulatory system.
The Bush administration claims that broadband deployment is a priority, and has set 2007 as a target for universal deployment of broadband service. Congress has deemed broadband so important it requires the FCC to report regularly on our nation's progress in broadband deployment. The FCC issued its fourth report in September.
The report confirmed that only seven out of every one hundred U.S. citizens are broadband subscribers. The Republican majority on the Federal Communications Commission called this level of access "reasonable and timely." The Democrats said it was neither.
The U.S. ranks 11th in the world in broadband subscribers – behind South Korea, Canada, and Iceland, among others. Not only that, but what the U.S. measures as broadband service (200 Kbps) wouldn't cut the mustard in much of the rest of the world. In Japan, for example, consumers pay the equivalent of $10 for service 40 times as fast as 200 Kbps. As FCC Commissioner Ken Adelstein puts it, "Global leaders not only have the higher [broadband] penetration, but offer higher speeds at lower prices."
FCC Chairman Michael Powell counters: "It's really dangerous to make facile comparisons to other countries on too deep a level because there are very, very different circumstances in those countries that I would never want to repeat here." According to Powell, "We have a clear vision for this migration to advanced platforms: stimulate investment in next generation architectures, apply a light hand and let entrepreneurs bring the future to the people." In other words, leave it to the industry to make sure the doctor at a rural hospital in West Virginia can share Internet images with medical experts at the Mayo Clinic=
Powell's notion of the American way does not adequately take into account the role direct federal involvement has played in the development and deployment of communications services, especially in satellite communications and the Internet. The private sector has never brought "the future to the people" without government and taxpayer support. But moving beyond Powell's limited view of communications development, how do we make sure the U.S. does not lag behind Iceland in delivering vital telecommunications services? How do we make sure, as Congress demanded in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, that all Americans have access to the advanced telecommunications services their tax dollars helped create?
Four years ago, when the U.S. could still claim global leadership in this area, the National Research Council brought together experts to look at broadband and anticipate some of the challenges ahead. Here are a few of the NRC's recommendations:
First: It is vital to collect accurate and timely data on where broadband is being deployed in the United States. As former FCC Chairman William E. Kennard wrote in 2000, "Our zip code data are so general that they may overstate the level of deployment." Unfortunately, four years later the FCC is still relying on self-reported information based upon zip codes. As the FCC has repeatedly acknowledged, identifying the location of broadband by zip codes does not tell us who has access and gives us only the most rudimentary information about where the service is deployed. Some zip codes may refer to a single building on a city block, some may refer to a much larger territory. It is impossible to set intelligent policy without accurate information to tell policy makers what is and what is not working.
Second: Defining broadband as 200 Kbps and above is not consistent with the goal of reporting to Congress on the deployment of advanced telecommunications services. Today, the speed of 200 Kbps hardly qualifies as advanced. As the NRC commission put it: "Broadband should be defined in a dynamic and multidimensional fashion."
Third: The federal government will need to be proactive to ensure the deployment of broadband service, particularly to underserved areas and populations. Laissez-faire market policies will not be sufficient to achieve Congress' goal of access for all Americans. The NRC commission recommended a variety of federal mechanisms to encourage broadband deployment. They include continuing support for research and experimentation with broadband applications, offering tax incentives, providing planning grants and technical assistance, and collecting and disseminating information on best practices.
All of these recommendations are still relevant, even if they have been ignored over the last four years. The National Research Council also suggested "comparing U.S. progress with that in other countries, and evaluating how progress abroad relates to national broadband policies and strategies." Let's see if we can catch up with Iceland.
FCC Fourth Report On Broadband Availability
National Research Council's "Bringing Home the Bits"
Mark Lloyd is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress focusing on communications policy issues, including universal service, advanced telecommunications deployment, media concentration and diversity.