Infrastructure
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2/14/2007
10:06 AM
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When It Comes To Broadband, U.S. Plays Follow The Leader

The United States often views itself as a paragon of technology innovation and deployment. In some cases, that view is correct, but not when it comes to broadband deployment, where the country lags considerably behind other major nations. Here's why.

Eating Korea's Dust
Korea is perhaps the best example of a country's rapid rise to widespread broadband availability. By almost all measures, Korea far surpasses all other nations in terms of broadband access, while Japan is the leader for price and highest typical connection speed. Over the 10 years between 1997 and 2007, Korea went from no broadband access to approximately 70% of households wired for broadband. Korea has a tradition of constructive and proactive government policy and involvement in building industry and technological capability to be competitive in the international market.

The United States has tended to swing between over-regulation and a hands-off, purely market-driven approach, neither of which, it could be argued, has served it well over the long term. Government is playing a key role in broadband development in the U.S., but proactive government initiatives have tended in recent years to occur on the state and local level more than through federal policies.

State and local governments across the country are stepping in with increasing urgency in an attempt to improve both wired and wireless broadband access. Jim Douglas, the second-term Republican governor of Vermont, in his January 2007 inaugural address, gave special attention to development of a broadband infrastructure, and promised to make Vermont the first "e-state," a proposition that involves near-ubiquitous wireless voice and data coverage throughout the state.

"While we take incremental steps to build a hard-wired network, the wireless world moves ahead. Homes that do not have broadband available are becoming increasingly difficult to sell," Douglas said at the time. "Entrepreneurs looking to start a new business will barely consider breaking ground in a community without good cellular coverage. Broadband Internet and wireless cellular are no longer mere conveniences afforded to urbanites or the well-heeled; they are a fundamental part of modern life for all Vermonters, as essential as electricity and good roads."

Douglas' proposal to create a Vermont Telecommunications Authority, to partner with private firms to improve cellular coverage and offer universal broadband access, is innovative and forward-looking. And coming from the highest state-level government official in Vermont, it also is a tacit recognition that the federal government isn't doing all it could to encourage broadband adoption throughout the United States, and that broadband coverage isn't currently adequate in many areas.

Doing It Locally
The ConnectKentucky program, an alliance of public agencies, private companies, and nongovernmental organizations, and a winner of the U.S. Economic Development Administration's Excellence in Innovation Award, is, through a variety of programs and initiatives, attempting to push for full broadband deployment statewide by the end of 2007.

One of the key tasks ConnectKentucky has pursued is a thorough set of surveys to determine broadband connectivity in its state. Among the central findings of those surveys has been that for those who don't have broadband connectivity, access and cost are the two main impediments. That critical result echoes other studies in the U.S.: the primary reasons homes in the U.S. don't use broadband tend to be lack of availability and high cost.

The city of Philippi in Barbour County, W.Va., whose economy has historically been based on mining, wood products, and agriculture, has put itself on the broadband map by pursuing the creation of a fiber to the home network, creating high-speed access in an area that has previously been underserved. A recipient of one of the largest USDA Rural Broadband grants available -- $2.3 million -- Philippi is bringing the kind of bandwidth to its citizens that most rural residents can only dream of, proof of the positive effect even limited public money can have when used to support broadband initiatives.

But even where local and regional governments have attempted to take matters into their own hands, success hasn't been guaranteed. SB740, introduced in the West Virginia Senate in 2005, was intended to increase broadband availability in the state by allowing local government bodies to act as Internet service providers in those communities where service wasn't already available. After intense lobbying by major telecommunications firms, the bill was weakened, and eventually dropped. This matches a pattern seen repeatedly across the country -- where a number of local municipalities and groups across the U.S. have created local broadband access opportunities where none previously existed, powerful lobbying efforts by telecommunications firms have smothered many of these initiatives.

The history of the telecommunications industry and government policy in the United States has been one of periods of government-enhanced monopoly and heavy regulation followed by a vigorous swing toward deregulation and pure market-force approaches. Overly intrusive governmental control or regulation of technology and telecommunications infrastructure has shown itself to have numerous pitfalls.

Yet the intensely "hands-off" market-driven system in recent years seems to have resulted in a chaotic and inefficient marketplace, and one that doesn't represent the true state of the United States as a technology leader. Laissez-faire isn't a viable stance if the goal is to compete most effectively against other industrialized nations.

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