Obama Calls for Broadband Deployment During Debate

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Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate for U.S. president, mentioned broadband rollout as one of his top priorities during a debate Friday evening, bringing applause from several groups promoting universally available broadband as a key part of a turn-around in the U.S. economy.

Obama, debating Senator John McCain, the Republican candidate for president, listed broadband rollout to rural areas as one of his top priorities that he wouldn't cut when asked about U.S. government budget constraints.

During the nationally televised debate, moderator Jim Lehrer, of the NewsHour on PBS, pressed McCain and Obama about what programs they would cut in light of a proposed US$700 billion government bailout of the U.S. financial services and mortgage industries. Obama said that several proposed programs may have to be delayed, but other priorities have to be addressed.

On Monday afternoon, the U.S. House of Representatives defeated the $700 billion bailout proposed by President George Bush and supported by congressional leaders in both parties.

During the debate, Obama listed several priorities that he would not cut: investing in alternative energy sources, reforming health care, investing in science and technology education, and providing assistance for U.S. students who want to attend college.

"I also think that we're going to have to rebuild our infrastructure, which is falling behind, our roads, our bridges, but also broadband lines that reach into rural communities," Obama added.

McCain, on the campaign trail Monday, criticized Obama for mentioning what programs he'd fund when asked what programs he'd cut in response to the huge bailout. "In his response, he started naming programs he wanted to increase spending on," McCain said in a speech carried on CNN.

That passing reference to broadband won praise from several groups that have pushed for the U.S. government to become more involved in broadband rollout. Several groups, including the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and Free Press, have criticized the Bush administration for not taking a more active role in encouraging broadband rollout across the U.S.

Several free-market commentators have questioned the numbers, but the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranked the U.S. 15th among its 30 member nations in broadband adoption per capita as of December. OECD and ITIF have also released studies saying the U.S. lags behind many industrialized nations in the speed of broadband available, and U.S. customers pay more per megabit of service than many other nations.

Obama's mention of rural broadband during the debate left broadband advocates "very encouraged," said Brian Mefford, CEO of Connected Nation, a nonprofit group working with local communities and state governments to roll out broadband in underserved areas. "We're looking at a possible scenario where the Congress and incoming president both have set broadband as a national priority and have a similarly substantive plan for progress," Mefford said.

Both McCain and Obama address broadband in tech position papers they've published.

Both candidates have expressed concern that the U.S. has fallen behind other countries in broadband adoption. Broadband rollout can help stimulate the U.S. economy by, among other things, helping small businesses market their products to a wider world and by providing students a better education, supporters of a national broadband policy have said.

Obama wants new programs that would encourage next-generation broadband deployment across the U.S., including rural areas, inner cities, schools and libraries. He's called for partnerships between government and private companies to assist the rollout of broadband in areas that do not have service.

McCain has said he would encourage private investment in broadband. In 2005, he split from several other Republicans when he drafted a bill that would prohibit states from outlawing municipal broadband projects.

Obama has occasionally talked about a need for a national broadband policy on the campaign trail, although Friday's debate represented the biggest audience to which he's mentioned broadband. "We're pleased to see any elected leader make high-speed Internet access for everyone a national priority," said Ben Scott, policy director of the Free Press Action Fund, an advocacy group focused on media reform.

Verizon executive Link Hoewing also noted Obama's mention of broadband. Hoewing, on the Verizon policy blog, called for Congress to pass a bill that would provide grant money for states to map out where broadband is and isn't available.

The U.S. Senate passed the Broadband Data Improvement Act on Friday, and Hoewing, Verizon's assistant vice president of Internet and technology issues, called on the House of Representatives to pass the bill. Verizon has suggested that private providers are doing a good job at rolling out broadband.

"There is abundant evidence that broadband technology can promote economic growth, energy efficiency, improved education programs and better health care," Hoewing wrote. "Relatively small investments in broadband can encourage substantial returns in economic growth, new jobs and innovation."

Obama's program would go much further than broadband mapping.

Obama's mention of broadband in the debate was nice to hear, said Robert Atkinson, president of the ITIF, a nonpartisan, tech-focused think tank. "His reference to rural [broadband] suggests that it's more than simply a 'check the box on campaign issues' and is likely to be something that an Obama administration is committed to," he said in an e-mail.

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