Friday, December 28, 2007

The Broadband Census of America Act and Addressing Digital Inequality in the U.S.

By Mikyung Baek, Research and Technical Associate at Kirwan Institute

“This country needs a national goal for broadband technology, for the spread of broadband technology. We ought to have a universal, affordable access for broadband technology by the year 2007, and then we ought to make sure as soon as possible thereafter, consumers have got plenty of choices when it comes to purchasing the broadband carrier.”

On the last day of year 2007, I am reminiscent of President Bush’s speech in Albuquerque, New Mexico on March 26, 2004 and wondering if we are there yet.

According to OECD Broadband Statistics in June 2007, the U.S. ranked 15th among OECD's 30 member countries in high speed Internet penetration -- the percentage of the population with high speed access. Just 22.1 percent of Americans have high speed connections, compared to more than 34 percent in Denmark, the top-ranked country. When it comes to the speed of Internet connections, the U.S. comes in 19th place with the average advertised broadband speed of 8.86 Mbps in the U.S. as opposed to 93.69 Mbps in Japan.

In the mean time, the U.S. FCC (Federal Communications Commission)’s report issued in October says "Our analysis indicates that more than 99% of the country’s population lives in the more than 99% of Zip Codes where a provider reports having at least one high-speed service subscriber."

Why the difference? That’s because the numbers FCC uses are unrealistic and bogus: FCC’s definition of broadband is any speed over 200 Kbps; if one broadband provider provides 200 Kbps service to a single house in one zip code, the FCC considers broadband to be available to everyone in that zip code. Not only do the FCC figures falsely represent the status of broadband penetration in the U.S., the statistics of zip code level data fails to measure the degree of digital inequality across different areas (urban, suburban or rural) and different groups of people. And without an accurate depiction of the status, we cannot expect proper solutions or policies to address digital inequality.

Fortunately, legislation to create detailed nationwide maps of high speed Internet coverage is moving along in Congress with bi-partisan support. The Broadband Census of America Act, approved by the House on November 13, 2007, will require the FCC to collect better information on the status of broadband connectivity in the U.S. The FCC is now required to report data on the number of Americans who are connected to high speed Internet by the number of residential and business high speed Internet subscribers per postal zip code.

I hope that this legislation will be widely used to help produce an accurate measure of broadband penetration in the U.S. It will then enable further data analyses to uncover where digital opportunity lies or is lacking and to isolate its causes. I am also hopeful that understanding the status of broadband penetration and the degree of digital inequality will motivate efforts to address the issues. After all, we do not want to say “Game Over: U.S. is unlikely to regain its broadband leadership” as Robert X. Cringely did in August 2007, … not just yet.

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