Iraq War veteran Randy Hickman had a better Internet connection while deployed than he does at his home in rural Alabama.
Hickman, a member of the Alabama National Guard, said many soldiers were able to communicate with their families through video conferencing while deployed in Iraq, but his family had only dial-up Internet service not capable of transmitting video.
Broadband connections and Internet cafes were available at U.S. Army bases in Iraq, but Hickman's family had limited bandwidth at home, he said.
"When I wanted to see my family, my daughter would go to a church parking lot and sit there with her laptop and webcam, stealing wireless Internet," Hickman said. "When you can see your family it means so much more."
Hickman, who lives near Montgomery, Alabama, will finally be able to receive broadband from AT&T next week, he said. Without broadband, his daughter, a college student, had to drop a class because some of the material was online, he said. "That isn't fair," Hickman said.
Hickman was one of the speakers Wednesday at a National Broadband Strategy Symposium in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Internet Innovation Alliance, a group focused on increasing broadband rollout and adoption in the U.S. The U.S. government needs to develop a strategy for rolling out broadband nationwide because many rural areas and inner cities don't yet have the option, speakers said.
Through additional broadband rollout and adoption, the U.S. could improve its health-care system by offering home-monitoring and distance diagnosis, and it could offer more educational opportunities to students, speakers said. Many universities require that a student has studied a foreign language before gaining admissions, yet many rural Alabama schools don't have foreign language teachers, said Kathy Johnson, director of the Alabama Broadband Initiative.
Johnson used dial-up service occasionally to remind herself of the needs of people who don't yet have broadband, she said. She recently tested how long it would take to download an entire movie. On a one gigabit-per-second broadband connection, it would take a minute and a half; on dial-up, it would take 15 days, she said.
The Internet Innovation Alliance is one of several groups calling for a national broadband strategy, and U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has called for the U.S. government to aid broadband rollout in underserved areas. However, such a plan could cost billions of dollars in a time when the U.S. economy is weak.
David McClure, president of trade group the United States Internet Industry Association, called for programs that would focus on areas that don't have broadband or have little competition. "We need targeted investments, not universal panaceas," McClure said.
While speakers called for more broadband connections, Mike Jude, an analyst with Nemertes Research, sounded an alarm. Nemertes, in a second study of broadband capacity, predicted that the use of video and other bandwidth-heavy applications will cause an Internet slowdown as soon as early 2011.
Several groups have questioned Nemertes' conclusions, but Jude said the Internet will not meet users' expectations if use continues to grow at its current pace. Even if Internet demand slows for a couple of years because of a sour economy, demand will still catch up to supply, he said. The economic problems could suppress investment in broadband infrastructure, he noted.
"Absent significant investment in access technology, demand for the Internet will exceed supply sometime in 2011," he said. "It doesn't really matter what the economy is doing right now, our model indicates that we're still going to have serious constraints and a dichotomy between what people would like to do and what they can do on the Internet."