Fast Internet access is becoming as essential as a phone. In fact, a high-quality connection can even provide a substitute for phone lines. Happily, both presidential candidates call for government to expand high-speed Web access, as many other countries have done to advance their economies.
Barack Obama squeezed the topic into the first presidential debate when he noted that among the priorities he would not be willing to give up, even in tough economic times, is extending high-speed broadband Internet service to rural communities. He equated it with the need to rebuild roads and bridges.
John McCain is a former chairman of the Senate committee that deals with Internet issues. "Solving the problems of health care, immigration, climate change, and energy dependence all require connecting our citizens to a world-class network," he says on his website.
The case for connecting all Americans with broadband access is overwhelming. Such connections – through cable TV, phone companies, Wi-Fi or other means – are needed for a 21st-century education and economy. Increasingly, schools communicate with students, governments with citizens, and businesses with customers primarily on the Web. Those who lack access are likely to fall behind.
Almost three out of five US households now have broadband access. Another one in 12 still has slow-poke dial-up service. Dial-up may be adequate for some e-mail, but at a fraction of the speed of broadband it can't handle big attachments, high-quality video, and other services.
China will soon surpass the US in number of broadband users. Both countries have about 78 million subscribers, but China's growth rate is twice that of the US. Of course, the Asian giant has roughly four times the population, but nonetheless, taking the No. 1 position is a milestone, similar to the recent space walk by Chinese astronauts.
As for the number of Internet users per 100 people, the US has slid from No. 2 in the world in 2000 to No. 19, according to Point-Topic.com, which tracks worldwide broadband trends.
South Korea, for example, ranks far above the US, though it's fair to point out that much of its population lives in dense urban areas, making hook-up less costly. Sweden has done a much better job than the US in reaching its remote rural populations.
For cable and phone companies, connecting scattered populations in rural areas doesn't make financial sense. Mr. McCain favors encouraging private companies to build out the Internet infrastructure by providing business tax incentives. But if a hands-off, free-market approach fails, he supports letting local governments step in to take over the job.
Mr. Obama gets there a somewhat different way. He wants to redirect the Universal Service Fund, fed by fees collected from telecommunications companies, so that instead of mostly promoting better phone service for rural and low-income Americans, it helps pay for affordable broadband.
Both candidates say they will look at underused portions of the wireless spectrum that could be tapped to provide low-cost broadband. Neither one seems tethered to hardened positions, however. That flexibility bodes well for a wired America, no matter which candidate wins.