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As Washington Wakes Up to Broadband, Adoption and Availability Must Be Addressed

To paraphrase Mark Twain, for the past decade, there has been a lot of talk in Washington about broadband, but no one has done much about it. That changes today, as the Department of Commerce, the Department of Agriculture and the Federal Communications Commission will explain how the Obama administration intends to use the provisions of the stimulus bill to ensure that broadband technologies are available to, and affordable for, every American.

Although urban and suburban Americans generally have a choice of broadband providers, millions of exurban and rural households — possibly as many as 8 percent of American households — don’t have access to affordable broadband. Equally troubling, millions of American households have broadband networks passing right in front of their doorsteps, but for reasons not entirely clear, have decided not to subscribe.

Though private industry will always be the primary investor in and builder of our nation’s broadband infrastructure, there are important roles that government must play if every American is to realize the benefits of broadband.

The stimulus bill reflects a recognition that you can’t cure a condition until you have diagnosed it. Appropriately, the administration and Congress provide funding for “mapping” broadband networks across the United States. Within two years, Americans will have a clear sense of where (and whether) the market is effectively delivering broadband, but also where additional government assistance to ensure broadband availability will be necessary. Some states have undertaken mapping efforts on their own, but currently there are no commonly accepted metrics for meaningful comparison of broadband availability, adoption speeds or pricing. Thus, there is no reliable way of measuring where our nation (or any particular state) stands with regard to broadband: we simply don’t have a meaningful or reliable grading system.

Virtually every analyst agrees that rural Americans are the least likely to have available access to broadband. Geography and economics conspire against investment in broadband in America. It is simply not easy to recoup broadband investment in states where cattle outnumber people and homes are dispersed widely. Fiber optic and other broadband technologies are expensive to deploy in these areas, and broadband wireless technologies are just now becoming fully viable for deployment.

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