Billions in New Network Investment Will Enable Government Broadband Stimulus Programs to Target the Neediest Communities with No Broadband Service
The Obama administration’s broadband stimulus efforts took it on the chin at a House subcommittee hearing this week. That’s almost a given these days when Republican lawmakers get a chance to question administration officials about the efficiency and transparency of program initiatives. But partisan bickering aside, there could be a silver lining – especially if the hearing gets us thinking creatively about broadband adoption and how to reach the President’s goal of making high-speed connectivity available to almost every American by 2016.
Despite the tone of the hearing, there were several positive takeaways. For example, NTIA Assistant Secretary and Administrator, Larry Strickling emphasized the positive value of the agency’s Broadband Adoption Toolkit to effectively educate and ease fears of those Americans in rural and underserved areas slow to adopt broadband. RUS Acting Administrator, John Padalino emphasized that public and private investment in broadband in areas currently lacking access would strengthen local economies and enable residents to take advantage of the high-speed Internet in their personal, social and professional lives. Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) said that more public and private investment in broadband infrastructure will be necessary to keep up with the overwhelming consumer demand for high-speed Internet services across the country.
The Obama Administration clearly understands the value that both wired and wireless broadband brings to communities across America.
What is the current state of affairs? To be sure, the U.S. has actually been making a lot of progress on the broadband front these days – especially in the wireless arena. A recent study by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation noted that “the United States has made rapid progress in broadband deployment, performance, and price…” and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski says we’ve regained global leadership. Good news, for sure, and with data to back it up.
Genachowski singles out deployment of 4G LTE wireless as an area where the U.S. is well ahead. That’s a positive for all of us, but especially the growing number who look to wireless as their first choice in broadband. Americans currently account for about 69 percent of the world’s LTE connections, which are now being offered by numerous national or major regional providers.
That progress is largely a testament to the power of private sector investment, which stands at about $1.2 trillion since 1996. Vigorous competition has compelled Internet Service Providers to continually upgrade the quality of their networks and also design affordable service packages to attract customers.
But, it’s also true that several million Americans, primarily in remote areas that are costly to serve, still lack any broadband options at all and in some parts of the country the networks are not very robust. And, some Americans simply aren’t signing up for service even when it’s available. Adoption of wired broadband at home, for example, has slowed, and more than one third of African Americans and Latinos have not yet subscribed to a high-speed connection in their home. Part of that slowdown reflects the popularity of wireless, but lack of awareness remains a barrier as well. Some Americans simply don’t appreciate the ways in which broadband can improve their quality of life, including access to jobs, government services, educational opportunities and better health care. For some, tight personal budgets also get in the way. Whatever the reason, we have to do better because folks who don’t have broadband are going to be left behind.
Bottom line: we have to work together and find ways to get broadband to those Americans who haven’t yet joined the digital age. It’s going to take more private dollars as state and federal government budgets are already stretched thin. Still, government can continue to serve a vital role in expanding broadband adoption by enhancing affordability of broadband service for low-income consumers, and targeting government subsidies to unserved areas where no market provider exists.
Given the amazing innovation we’ve seen in network technology, devices, and broadband-based applications, a strong commitment from both government and the private sector working together should enable us to deliver broadband to just about every American who wants it. The brainpower is there to get this job done. If the House hearing triggers us to work together to identify smart policies and initiatives to address this problem, more Americans will have broadband services in the future and government broadband stimulus programs will then have the opportunity to concentrate on the neediest communities currently lacking access to broadband in the U.S.