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Why do so many Americans have crummy Internet speeds?

At least 14 countries have zoomed past the US when it comes to broadband Web access.

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We keep hearing that high-speed connections are key to the future success for everything from the entertainment industry to government accountability to small business development. So why is the US doing such a so-so job?

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One reason could be that the US doesn’t have much of a national broadband policy. Earlier this year, FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein reportedly said they weren’t sure if the US had such a policy.

The Bush administration, however, says it does have a policy: Keep the government from intervening and let the market decide. This approach is outlined in “Network Nation: Broadband in America 2007” a report from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

“Past experience teaches that when government tries to substitute its judgment for that of the market by favoring one product or vendor over another, it can easily divert investment and/or discourage research necessary to bring new and better products or services to market,” the report said. “Given the rapid pace of technological change, such unintended effects can have long-term and far-reaching adverse consequences that extend across multiple sectors of the economy. For this reason, the administration has consistently and strenuously advocated for technology neutrality in order to take the government out of decisions more appropriately left to the marketplace.”

But is this policy – or lack thereof – really helping the consumer? According to a report by Ars Technica on the 2007 study, there were 13 OECD countries with lower prices and greater government involvement. It’ll be interesting to see what that figure is this year once the data is examined.

Critics say that all this shows that the US is not giving consumers adequate broadband choices. “The fact is that the countries outperforming the United States have something we lack: a coherent national broadband policy,” S. Derek Turner, research director of Free Press, a media reform group, said in a statement after the release of the OECD report. “Policymakers who are serious about America’s economic and social well-being should focus on the open access policies that bring the benefits of broadband to all Americans.”

But that’s not likely to happen under the present administration, so the US will probably drop farther down the list next year. Given that the current presidential candidates have widely hailed the Internet for boosting their campaigns, it will be interesting to see if a new broadband policy emerges next year.

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