Friday, June 05, 2009

The Broadband News Is In, but it Isn’t All Good

Dr. Melodie Mayberry-Stewart, New York’s Chief Information Officer, head of the state Office for Technology , and Chair of the New York State Council for Universal Broadband, took to the podium at the Opportunity Online Broadband Summit on June 3rd and delivered the sobering news: the Council’s just released NYS Universal Broadband Annual Report for 2008 revealed that the U.S. lags behind much of the world in broadband penetration, broadband speed, and price per megabit. In addition, while New York’s median download speed, 4.14 megabits per second, does exceed the nationwide average of 2.35, our country is ranked in 15th place worldwide, far behind Canada (7.6), France (17.6), Finland (21.7), South Korea (49.5), and Japan (63.6). She added that 48 percent of households throughout New York state lack broadband connectivity, roughly 3.7 million households or 10 million people.

On top of this, recently released U.S. Census data shows that 61.5 percent of New Yorkers had Internet access at home in 2007, but only 54.1 percent had broadband connectivity. While these figures slightly exceed the national average (50.8 percent of Americans had broadband in the home in 2007), it is safe to say that millions of New Yorkers currently lack broadband access.

What do these statistics hold for economic development, educational opportunities, and job training? Plenty.

In one of his first public statements since being elected President, Barack Obama stressed the importance of broadband when on December 6th he said that “It is unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption. Here, in the country that invented the Internet, every child should have the chance to get online.” N.Y. Times, Dec. 8, 2008, Obama Pledges Public Works on a Vast Scale. The President and Congress began to follow up on this commitment with a $4.7 billion universal broadband program as part of the federal stimulus package. As stated in a National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) press release:
The U.S. Congress has appropriated $4.7 billion to establish a Broadband Technology Opportunities Program for awards to eligible entities to develop and expand broadband services to unserved and underserved areas and improve access to broadband by public safety agencies. Of these funds, $250 million will be available for innovative programs that encourage sustainable adoption of broadband services; at least $200 million will be available to upgrade technology and capacity at public computing centers, including community colleges and public libraries; $10 million will be a transfer to the Office of Inspector General for the purposes of BTOP audits and oversight. Up to $350 million of the BTOP funding is designated for the development and maintenance of statewide broadband inventory maps.
Dr. Mayberry-Stewart gets it: Broadband access to the Internet is critical for success in economic development, educational opportunities, and job training. However, global competitiveness dictates not only ubiquitous broadband availability, but the ability of every citizen to know how to use it and to be able to afford the service. Rolling out fiber optics and ensuring everyone has a computer to access broadband are certainly critical, but what happens when the monthly service fees are beyond the ability of most people to pay? Should a discount program for low income families and those on various forms of public assistance be made available for broadband, as currently exists in the Lifeline assistance program for local telephone service? Let’s not pave the superhighway, only to price the automobiles out of range for many.

What can the state do to boost broadband deployment and participation? Certainly the creation of the New York State Council on Universal Broadband and placing a knowledgeable expert like Dr. Mayberry-Stewart in charge gives the movement credibility and a chance at success. While the New York State Public Service Commission may balk at taking a lead role in achieving universal broadband, claiming that it lacks jurisdiction, that argument may not work for long. Just this week, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in Bridgewater Telephone Company, Inc. v. City of Monticello (File No. 86-CV-08-4555) that broadband access can be a utility service provided by a municipality, just like water or electricity. The court found that:
The definition of municipal public utilities appears broad enough to contemplate Internet service. . . . Furthermore, Merriam Webster dictionary defines telecommunication as ‘communication at a distance (as by telephone).’ . . . Internet services seems to meet this definition. E-mail, instant messaging, and talking via web cam are all ways to communicate at a distance utilizing Internet service.
While this decision has no direct bearing on New York State, the decision recognizes that broadband service can be considered a utility, and that concept carries with it the public service duties including the obligation to make it available to all, at reasonable cost, in accordance with nondiscriminatory policies.

Yes, broadband is out there for some and more needs to be done to bring broadband to the door of every school, library, and home. No doubt about it. But, what more can be done to sustain this development? If people don’t use it or can’t afford it, the benefits of universal broadband connectivity – including concepts not yet dreamed of – will never become reality.

Lou Manuta

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