Down to Business: Universal Broadband Access for All?

High-speed digital access for all? It's this election year's high-tech equivalent to a chicken in every pot. But does everyone actually want it?

May 21, 2004

2 Min Read
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Where's the Demand?

Before anyone decides to shell out tens of billions of our dollars (trillions of pennies) to make up the shortfall, it's worth asking: Does everyone really want or need broadband communications? Despite all the rhetoric about the "digital divide" and the haves and have-nots and how the United States is "falling behind" the fat-wired economies of Japan, Germany and South Korea, no one knows how many homes will want fast Internet access, and how soon.

Supporters argue that broadband Internet access and the remote education, employment and health-care services it renders make it an essential public service, letting rural and poor communities reap the same benefits of the information economy as the digitally endowed.

So let's assume universal broadband is a national imperative. What's the best way to get there?

One knee-jerk strategy is to define broadband as a universal service like basic telephony, charging subscribers a small fee (what's a few extra pennies?) to subsidize a nationwide DSL (or cable or wireless) rollout that includes remote locations. Such a plan would likely also include "finding" public money to lower the price of broadband services in those underserved areas.A better, market-oriented approach is to make it easier for providers to build out lower-cost broadband alternatives. For example, under a plan proposed by the FCC this month, vacant frequencies between TV stations would be freed for unlicensed wireless broadband Internet services. Those lower-frequency bands let signals travel farther than they do with current wireless services, substantially lowering the cost of broadband rollout to remote locations. In this way, those who really want or need high-speed access can get it, at reasonable rates set by the market rather than by regulators.

In addition, don't underestimate the power of competition among DSL, cable, powerline and wireless providers to further bring down the price of broadband access--again, as long as regulators don't choke those innovators and risk takers into submission. A billion invested here and a billion invested there, and soon we'll be talking about real progress.

Rob Preston is editor in chief of NETWORK COMPUTING. Write to him at [email protected].

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