Making universal broadband service a reality

Universal broadband is too big a job for the private sector or the feds. Both will have to work together to provide high-speed Internet access to everyone.

This week, the Obama administration took its first step toward making high-speed Internet service available to everyone in America. It announced millions of dollars in grants and loans for broadband service in underserved communities across the country. But it didn’t act alone and that’s an important point. States kicked in. So did the private sector. 

The Internet is as fundamental to US economic growth and productivity in this century as the telephone, electric power, and the National Highway System were in the last. The Web is both the dial tone and transport system of the modern age – connecting people and ideas and opening a path to markets and services around the world.

Until this year, though, the federal government has been largely absent from the delivery of fast Internet service. That’s been the work of the private sector – the cable, satellite, and telecom companies. They’ve done a good job. Some studies show that nearly 90 percent of US households now have access to broadband. 

But the private sector can’t do it all. Companies only go where there’s profit, which means that many poor neighborhoods, and rural and tribal areas don’t have access to a high-speed Internet connection. Once a leader in the Internet, the US ranks 15th in broadband market penetration. And compared with a country such as Japan, the average Internet speed in the US is a tenth as fast. 

It’s time for the federal government to get involved, and this year, it did. Congress provided $7.2 billion of Recovery Act money to help reach the goal of universal, affordable broadband access. Wisely, it also required matching funds from states to augment this assistance.

This week, Vice President Biden announced the first recipients of the stimulus funds: $183 million to poor and underserved areas in 17 states, from Appalachian Georgia and rural Maine to native American areas in southwest Alaska. Other public funds and the private sector are contributing $46 million. 

Congress has also required the Federal Communications Commission to come up with a National Broadband Plan, due in February. From a preliminary report released this week, the FCC looks to be on the right path. It says competition should be a “guiding principle” of any plan, because competition drives innovation and provides consumer choice. It also recognizes limited government funding and says federal help will have to be “leveraged with private sector investment.”

That seems to be the reality of the 21st century. The federal government simply doesn’t have the money to expand the Internet in the way it built Interstate highways or electrified rural areas. And government can’t always know which Internet technology to support. But there’s also no denying that universal, high-speed Internet service is as essential to American competitiveness as universal phone service has been. 

Broadband for all will have to be a public-private partnership for now.  

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