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Broadband in the U.S. faces a fork in the road

Matt Hamblen | April 14, 2014
While AT&T and Google supercharge broadband, the have-nots still lag behind.

In 2012, Wired reported that Google's efforts to launch Google Fiber in Kansas City, Mo., had left out some poorer neighborhoods because of the way Google required future customers to pre-register in order to get service.

Google has a community outreach program to help connect more neighborhoods that, along with its "basic" service, "may end up alleviating the digital divide," said Doug Brake, telecom policy analyst for the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation in Washington.

But Brake urged broadband providers and state and federal policy makers to be "wary of tumbling headlong into building out a new [fiber] network instead of squeezing out all the performance we can out of existing infrastructure. Google and Gig.U [a coalition of 30 universities] have done a lot of good work identifying ways to work with cities to build new infrastructure with less cost, but if those people who are worse off don't get to participate, that's a problem."

As for AT&T, Brake said he would prefer to see the provider expand its existing service of high-speed DSL in the 45 Mbps range. "I'd rather see AT&T's network footprint go to 45 Mbps than have a handful of cities go to 1 Gbps," he said.

Many businesses, including banks and insurance companies, can indirectly get hurt when broadband isn't widely available, since those companies count on customers to connect to them via the Internet to get their business, Horrigan said.

"Schools, government agencies, and banks expect [their users] to have broadband at home," Horrigan said on Thursday via email, basing his comments on surveys of recent Internet adopters. "That's because these institutions see the value and efficiency in digital delivery of services. That gives these institutions a stake in investing in broadband adoption programs -- not just providers of home broadband service ... It's in the interest of providers and other actors to undertake efforts to promote broadband adoption among the final 25% to 30% of the country without broadband at home."

Horrigan believes there's room for building out 1 gigabit fiber connections, while also increasing the numbers of broadband-connected homes. "I don't know that it's necessarily an either/or proposition," he said. "Both things are priorities."

Horrigan has warned for a while that money is running out for local broadband expansion programs funded through the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) , a federal initiative within the Department of Commerce. "Many BTOP-funded programs are out of money, yet research shows they are not out of mission," he said. "That means it's time for policymakers at the state and federal level to think about additional funding for programs to promote broadband adoption."


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