Democratic Convention Brings Calls for Broadband Policy

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The U.S. needs a broadband policy targeting unserved areas that's backed by action, not just words, said several speakers at a technology forum in Denver.

The U.S. has gone from "leader to laggard" in broadband rollout and adoption during the past eight years under Republican President George Bush, said Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, speaking Tuesday at a forum hosted by Silicon Flatirons, a tech law center at the University of Colorado, held in conjunction with the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

In early 2004, Bush called for broadband to be universally available across the U.S. by 2007, but that hasn't happened, Rockefeller said at the technology forum, which was webcast. "Despite all the rhetoric about improving Americans' access to broadband, the Bush administration never made achieving their goal a serious matter," he added. "Why? For starters, deploying broadband is really hard work."

While several other speakers at the forum joined Rockefeller in calling for a more aggressive broadband rollout policy, others at the event questioned if the U.S. was as behind other nations in broadband adoption as some studies have suggested. Commonly quoted statistics from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which rank the U.S. 15th among its 30 member nations in broadband adoption per capita, ignore several factors, said Michael Katz, an economics and business professor at New York University and former chief economist at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

If researchers look at the percentage of the population that has access to broadband, instead of broadband lines per capita, the U.S. would be eighth, Katz said. The countries in front of the U.S. generally have smaller household sizes or a higher population density, he added.

"Let's start with the facts," Katz said. "Let's try to have a rational basis for the policy, instead of relying on knee-jerk reactions and slogans. Yes, it'd be great for everyone to have broadband, but how about we look at what it'd cost?"

Other panelists suggested a national broadband policy is necessary because there remain large populations who don't have access to broadband or can't afford it. Less than half of African-Americans, Latinos, rural residents and people making less than US$20,000 a year have broadband, said Larry Irving, president of the Irving Group and a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Commerce.

"Whether you think that's important or not, some of those people do," Irving said. "There are young, bright kids in barrios; there are young, bright kids in Appalachia; there are young, bright kids born in the projects who are not getting out because they're not able to go home every night and do their homework."

For many areas of the country, there isn't accurate information to know where broadband does or does not exist, he added. Better statistics and mapping should be a first step, Irving said.

Broadband can help solve several issues facing the U.S., including providing a better education system and access to health care, Irving added.

One way to step up broadband rollout would be to refocus the Universal Service Fund, which has been used to bring broadband to schools and libraries, toward more general broadband rollout, said Dorothy Attwood, senior vice president for public policy at broadband provider AT&T. But policymakers need to think more broadly about the benefits of broadband, she said.

Policymakers need to realize that "broadband is essentially important to solving our problems," she said. "It isn't a broadband policy in isolation. We need to say, 'How do we look at the problems that are confronting all of us?' and recognize that broadband is part of the solution."

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