Monday, October 26, 2009

Broadband Access Critical

A recent development in Europe caught my attention this week. The government of Finland is requiring all telecommunications companies serving that country to offer a minimum of 1 megabit per second (mb/s) Internet access to all citizens no matter if they live in cities or in isolated rural locations. By 2015 the government plans for this minimum to be expanded to 100 mb/s. For perspective, the 1 mb/s is about what you get from a standard Cincinnati Bell DSL line - if that service is available to you, and in rural areas it is not.

Finland is not alone in adopting these “broadband as a right” mandates. The United Nations is promoting this concept heavily as it sees the new communications available via broadband to be as important to countries as good roads, electricity and clean water.

Over the past two years I have mentioned several times in this column that the US continues to fall behind many countries of the world in the availability of new telecommunications technologies for ALL its citizens. I have also opined about the high cost of the services we do have.

Among the countries of the world, the United States is the only industrialized nation without a national policy to promote high speed broadband. This may be one of the reasons that the US is 23rd in the world with 60% of us having high speed service. South Korea still leads the world with 95% penetration.
There seems to be some movement to address this situation. In February, the Federal Communications Commission is slated to submit a national plan to Congress. It will not be inexpensive. The FCC reports that expanding the service will require subsidies and investments of as much as $350 billion. With so many critical initiatives facing the nation, such as health care reform and education improvement, it is unlikely that such an investment will get much traction in Congress. I, for one, hope that it does get the attention it deserves.
Daily, each of us experiences more and more uses of a robust broadband connected economy. The ATM where you get your cash and the gas pump where you fill your car rely on this network. Increasingly, the news you read and the instruction your kids get in school will require greater and greater capacities of our broadband networks. For these networks not to be available to all citizens no matter their geographic location sets up a “have” vs “have not” society. Such a situation will not serve the US well as we compete in a worldwide interconnected economy.
In the past our government has developed policies to expand the electric power grid to unserved rural areas, phone service to isolated communities and a network of interstate highways to connect communities large and small. The expansion of the broadband network needs to follow these same Federal initiatives.



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