06:09 PM

Americans Online In The Slow Lane

The United States is falling further behind many other developed nations in broadband use. Part of the reason is the government's reluctance in getting involved in building the needed infrastructure. And the current discussion of Net neutrality in Congress could make the matter worse.

Americans are not ardent fans of the Winter Olympics, partly because the nation's athletes do not dominate the medal count. But a foreign competitor at the Games in Turin, Italy, this month demonstrates how the United States is falling behind in a different sort of race.

The competitor is not a skier or a figure skater -- or a person at all, but a new technology for wireless broadband Internet access developed in South Korea, called WiBro. And the race in question? How fast a country can provide its population with high-speed Internet access.

After ranking as high as third worldwide in 2000, the United States dropped to 16th last year for its number of high-speed Internet subscribers per capita, according to the International Telecommunication Union, with 11.4 broadband subscribers per 100 inhabitants. South Korea, the global leader, has 24.9 subscribers per 100 inhabitants, trailed by Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Denmark, Canada and Switzerland, which all have at least 17 subscribers per 100 inhabitants. Updated data is expected soon for 2006, and some predict the United States will fall out of the top 20.

The WiBro technology on display in Turin by Samsung Electronics Co. can transmit 30 megabits per second to a wireless tablet in what eventually could be a residential service. "They're already on to the next generation," says Jonathan Taplin, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

Other countries may have higher percentages of people using broadband because of their dense populations, which makes it easier to build the necessary network infrastructure, but Canada's strong showing proves that government policy is another reason the United States has begun to lag behind.

The government's role in overseeing the Internet has become a popular topic recently with the "Net neutrality" debate in Congress.

Cable and telecom providers want to be able to charge Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN and other Internet companies for using their high-speed connections to the home. The other side argues that the Internet should remain a neutral playing field where no one pays a toll. Charging for the use of a broadband network would hamper innovation and make it more difficult for smaller companies to offer Web services, the Internet companies say.

Some consumer advocates fear that if broadband providers got their way, it would lead to higher monthly bills for consumers for high-speed Internet access, but Taplin and other academics dispute that.

"This notion of some grand battle between content owners and network owners, I think it's specious," Taplin says. "Network owners can partition bandwidth in such a way that everyone can have access to the Internet in a way we have today and provide some value-added services. There should be plenty of room for everyone to do what they want."

As proof that consumers shouldn't worry about their bills, Taplin cites the recent offers by Verizon, SBC Communications (before it merged with AT&T) and others to provide faster-than-dial-up access of up to 768 kilobits per second for $14.95 per month.

He's also encouraged by results of a workshop on this issue at the Annenberg Center earlier this month in which business interests, regulators, academics and consumer advocates agreed on a set of principles for the industry, though the results won't be published for another couple weeks.

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