We're Number (Twenty) One

Carl Weinschenk

This Washington Post op-ed, written by FCC commissioner Michael Copps, bemoans the state of broadband in the United States. Most dramatically, Copps cites an International Telecommunication Union report that says that the United States is 15th in the world in broadband penetration and 21st (after Estonia, that hotbed of broadband activity) in a "digital opportunity" index.

The availability of broadband to businesses and the consumers to which they hope to sell converged services is a vital topic. Complex political, social, regulatory and technical issues played a role in getting us into this fix. This is an unconscionable standing for a country that largely made broadband possible.

There are some good signs, however. Cable networks are getting more sophisticated and the telephone industry is starting to evolve from antiquated DSL lines to fiber-rich platforms such as AT&T's Project Lightspeed and Verizon's FiOS. Pre-standard 802.11n gear is available and WiMax will soon begin to roll out. Broadband over powerline (BPL) technology is becoming available. It may be slower, but it's everywhere.

Of course, all of these technologies also will be available in the countries against which the U.S. competes. The reality, then, is that the U.S. may not move up the charts when compared against other nations. Indeed, it's largely meaningless except as an overall indicator. Smaller nations that are more easily served and those with unique geographies (such as Japan, with a size and population density that lends itself to high fiber penetration) may skew the results.

What's ultimately most important, then, is not how we fare against other nations. It's how good a job we do in making higher broadband speeds more ubiquitously available at reasonable prices to our own citizens. That good news -- the emergence of speedier and more efficient wireless, fiber, coax and other platforms -- is only half the battle. The other and perhaps more difficult element is developing the political will to tackle the challenge. Whether this will exists will decide the fate of contentious issues such as Net neutrality, the structure of telco video franchises and the restructuring of the overall telecommunications laws.

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