Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Who Needs IT?

From MSNBC: NEW YORK - The United States is starting to look like a slowpoke on the Internet. Examples abound of countries that have faster and cheaper broadband connections, and more of their population connected to them.

...In a move to get a clearer picture of where the U.S. stands, the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday approved legislation that would develop an annual inventory of existing broadband services — including the types, advertised speeds and actual number of subscribers — available to households and businesses across the nation.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., is intended to provide policy makers with improved data so they can better use grants and subsidies to target areas lacking high-speed Internet access. He said in a statement last week that promoting broadband would help spur job growth, access to health care and education and promote innovation among other benefits.

It's really not a surprise that the U.S. is lagging behind in both access and quality of service. During the Clinton Administration annual reports entitled "Falling Through The Net" were issued detailing the countries progress towards digital inclusion. In 2001, the name of that report was changed to "A Nation Online".

In other words, politics. From one administration to another the role of the federal government in American broadband policy changed from serving as the catalyst for digital inclusion to that of a bystander.

Efforts at digital inclusion in this country are usually met with suspicion or outright opposition, because they are typically framed as a social program instead of as a necessary part of our economic infrastructure, like rural electrification. In its day, that effort was panned as bringing America one step closer to socialism, but in actuality;

"When farmers did receive electric power their purchase of electric appliances helped to increase sales for local merchants. Farmers required more energy than city dwellers, which helped to offset the extra cost involved in bringing power lines to the country."

In all fairness, there have been many recent efforts to address the issue of broadband access, including through municipal wireless initiatives. It's too early to determine how successful any of these efforts will ultimately be. We do know that some have never got off the drawing board.

We are behind the world in this respect however as other countries like South Korea and Japan have realized the potential of the internet to spur innovation and change, and made massive investments in the technical infrastructure of their societies. For example:

"In 2001, Japan was well behind the United States in the broadband race. But thanks to top-level political leadership and ambitious goals, it soon began to move ahead. By May 2003, a higher percentage of homes in Japan than in the United States had broadband, and Japan had moved well beyond the basic connections still in use in the United States. Today, nearly all Japanese have access to 'high-speed' broadband, with an average connection speed 16 times faster than in the United States -- for only about $22 a month. Even faster 'ultra-high-speed' broadband, which runs through fiber-optic cable, is scheduled to be available throughout the country for $30 to $40 a month by the end of 2005. And that is to say nothing of Internet access through mobile phones, an area in which Japan is even further ahead of the United States."

Is there any doubt that this will ultimately
promote economic development, much like space exploration and rural electrification did for the American economy?

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