Comment A long-awaited US report studying access to online information was released Friday. One of its recommendations is that the government radically step up its efforts to ensure broadband access to all.
The report, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, was developed in a partnership of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute, and written by a 16-member panel co-chaired by Marissa Mayer, Google's VP for seach products and user experience, and Theodore B. Olson, a partner in the Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher law firm and former US Solicitor General.
Mayer, of course, being a Googlian, has a dog in this fight - but that's not sufficient reason to summarily discard the conclusions reached by her and her committee.
Much of the 140-page report (PDF) contains such vague pronouncements as citizens should have "access to both civic and life-enhancing information", journalism should be "abundant in many forms and accessible through many convenient platforms", and Americans should be "active in acquiring and sharing knowledge both within and across social networks."
But on one nuts-and-bolts issue, the report is as clear as a bell. The writers recommend that the US government should:
- Complete a national broadband strategy aimed at bringing Americans low-cost high-speed Internet access, including wireless, everywhere they want and need it.
- Establish a national target for household broadband access at speeds sufficient to support video transmission at a level of quality comparable to the household video services now delivered through cable and satellite television services.
- Adopt public policies encouraging consumer demand for broadband services. [and] Continue to use financial incentives to help spur broadband deployment in areas where it has lagged because of market conditions.
And they're right.
The so-called "digital divide" remains a stark reality - so stark that former US Secretary of State Colin Powell once referred to the technological gap between the well-to-do and the down-and-out as "digital apartheid."
Broadband internet access has become a necessity rather than a luxury. News, a shared popular culture, government services, educational offerings, rich-content shopping - if you don’t have access, you’re relegated to second-class status in the US culture, economy, and educational system.
And as the report notes, roughly one-third of rural American communities can't subscribe to broadband at any price, and only about 25 percent of American households with annual incomes below $20,000 have a broadband connection even as currently defined by the US government - and that definition is a joke, considering that it includes speeds as slow as 200kbps.
As starry-eyed as some of the report is, its language concerning a broadband build-out is direct: "The cost of such system upgrades for wired and wireless Internet services will likely be counted in the tens of billions of dollars. But not to make such an investment, we believe, will cost the nation significantly more in the years to come in lost competitiveness worldwide."
But from where we sit, those billions would have far more impact than the inordinate amount of tax dollars spent on unneeded weapons systems designed for outdated modes of warfare.
Sure, you can argue that uneven income distribution is a fact of life. You may drive a Mercedes SLP McLaren Roadster and I may chug along in a 1978 Honda Civic, but we both drive on the same roads.
Perhaps it's time for the US government to not only provide financial and regulatory incentives to telecoms to build out their broadband offerings - even though some have turned down government cash - but also to guarantee access for all Americans to a country-covering "information superhighway," much as it did for the interstate highway system that it began back in 1956.
Ah, but in today's red-meat-ranting world, that'd be ... all together now ... "Socialism!" ®