America's broadband shame

The U.S. continues to fall behind other nations in providing fast Internet access to all its citizens. The good news: We're saving rural America from smut overload.

Published October 25, 2007 10:03PM (EDT)

In June 2004 George Bush declared that "what we are interested in is to make sure broadband technology is available in every corner of America by the year 2007."

"On a per capita basis, America ranks tenth amongst the industrialized world. That's not good enough. We don't like to be ranked tenth in anything. The goal is to be ranked first when it comes to per capita use of broadband technology. It is in our nation's interest. It's good for our economy. The spread of broadband will only help industry. It will help the quality of life of our citizens."

Since that point, however, the U.S. has continued to fall further behind. It is now ranked 15th. Indeed, the entire tenure of George Bush has been marked by a steady decline in the U.S.'s relative standing. In 2001, the U.S. was fourth. In 2004, 10th. In 2007, 15th.

That tidbit comes by way of a congressional hearing held Tuesday by a House Appropriations subcommittee investigating the topic "Broadband in Rural America." The back story: The 1996 Telecommunications Act massively deregulated the telecommunications industry in the United States, but even so, the FCC was instructed to regularly "initiate a notice of inquiry to determine whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion ... If the commission's determination is negative, it should take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure, investment, and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market."

Not only has the FCC not even issued a report on broadband penetration since 2004, but the Rural Utility Service, the chief agency delegated to ensure that the needs of rural areas are being addressed, hasn't spent anywhere close to the total amount of money appropriated for it. In other words, under Bush's watch, neither the federal government nor the private sector has been able to keep up with the likes of France and Japan and South Korea.

In France, France, citizens pay half as much as do residents of the U.S. for broadband that is twice as fast, said subcommittee chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.

In the current era of a Democratically controlled Congress, the pathetic state of U.S. broadband availability offered an opportunity for politicians and panel members to make numerous references to the beloved Rural Electrification Act of the New Deal, albeit interspersed with griping from representatives of the telecommunications industry who oppose, on principle, any government interference in their business. There was also extended haranguing directed at Billy Bean Jr., CEO of a wireless company called Open Range Communications, which recently managed to snag a $268 million loan from the Rural Utility Service to set up business in a number of locations, many of which, strangely enough, appear to be wealthy enclaves that already enjoy broadband access.

Good stuff! Lots of relatively non-ideological discussion of such issues as the very basic problem that the federal government doesn't even know which parts of the country don't have access to any broadband services at all, the question of how to properly define "unserved" vs. "underserved," and the significant technical differences between rolling out, say, electrical or old-style land-line phone service, and something as complicated as broadband, which can be delivered in many different ways -- via cable, phone line, wireless, satellite, etc. The hearing was long, and geeky.

And then there came this, from Ohio Democrat Marcy Kaptur, who out of nowhere suddenly saw fit to inform the audience that "I now boycott television, for the most part. I don't think it's worthy of filling up my brain with most of it."

But that was just the beginning:

I had a father approach me from Cleveland, Ohio, who showed me photos -- well, copies of things -- that his son, who had been in the second grade, got on the school bus from one of the other boys who had Xeroxed it at his home. And the father had to have a long chat with the son.

So many of these technologies that we have now invade the value set that individual families have. So as much as I want to help business in rural communities get access, I, myself, am appalled every day, on my own computer, with the gazillions of screens that we have here; that rather than spam, I get smut even on Congressional Web sites.

And I just have to say: At the same time as I want to help the private sector in the rural areas of our country grow, I would venture to say there hasn't been a single constituent in my district that has ever asked me for more broadband ... I'll tell you, I'm at the point where I just feel our youth are being degraded. The electronic systems we're putting in place are helping to do that. And until we curb that, I am more reluctant than any of my colleagues to move forward.

Now, that doesn't mean that I don't want good communication systems out there for homeland security and the defense of the nation. But if what I'm doing is bringing smut to more households in America, you know what? I really don't want to do it.

And there you have it: the best defense offered yet for falling further behind the leading nations of the world in providing broadband Internet access to U.S. residents. It's for the children.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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