We must bridge rural digital divide in America

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Simply put, Europe’s broadband experiment has been a failure, relying mostly on forcing taxpayers to underwrite massive investments in what are second rate broadband networks and to then induce competition by allowing rivals to rent part of the network at subsidized rates. As a result, the pace of network investment has been glacial – and so are the speeds. Only half of European Union citizens can access download speeds of at least 30 megabits/second.  
 
And while some of the old-school uber-regulators claimed that this would spur more competition than in the U.S. – where we have the fastest peak connection speeds, on average, of any similarly-sized country in the world, financed entirely by private investment – the competitive and innovative environment has been almost Soviet-like in its results.
 
Millions of consumers are stuck with no choice of broadband technology – 93 percent of French broadband connections are through DSL. Not surprisingly, the European Commission recently declared its preference for the American model of encouraging private investment in competitive fiber networks.
 
In fact, the story here in the U.S. has been largely positive since President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Until then, the telephone companies dominated the high-speed Internet business and few families could afford anything other than dial up. Even those of us who didn’t support the legislation (and I was certainly among those), would likely concede increased competition between telephone, cable, wireless and satellite facilities.
 
Since then, U.S. broadband companies have sunk a whopping trillion-plus dollars into the best and largest fiber and hybrid networks that the world knows today. A speed war erupted when cable modems went mainstream that continues to this day. Cable networks capable of hundred-megabit/second speeds are available to about 80 percent of homes in the U.S. More than six in ten American households will soon be able to access fiber networks. Fourth-generation wireless service, capable of speeds as high as 20 megabits/second, will connect about 294 million American homes by mid-year. And by a variety of measures, including the World Wide Web Foundation’s “Web Index,” the U.S. is one of the most “digitized” nations on Earth.
 
The Progressive Policy Institute – one of the leading center-left economic think tanks in the country – cites several broadband companies among its 2011 “Investment Heroes” for continuing to heavily invest in their networks despite our struggling economy. And the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says that the U.S. is by far the world’s leader in total broadband investment and near the top in private investment per capita.
 
But sometimes critics turn a blind eye to the evidence, choosing instead to highlight any data – no matter how flawed – that justifies a relapse to the regulation of old Ma Bell and the EU. Some cite widely discredited metrics that rank the U.S. lower than other countries by crudely measuring (on a per capita basis) the number of wired broadband accounts rather than the actual number of Americans who are using residential broadband with these accounts (the U.S typically has larger households and therefore more people using broadband per account). These metrics also ignore next-generation wireless broadband.
 
Connecting rural areas, however, is an area in which U.S. broadband policy has so far struggled. While my very-urban district is an emblem of successful broadband policy and every single resident can expect access to broadband speeds, many of my friends in rural Maine are starved for access and choice. In one district, nearly 30 percent of residents have no broadband access, and those who do have little choice, my parents being in the latter category.
 
Federal, state and local lawmakers should make bridging the rural digital divide their top hi-tech priority. Federal initiatives like the Department of Commerce’s Broadband Technology Opportunity Program, the FCC’s Connect America Fund and the USDA’s recently reformed Broadband Loan Program reflect renewed commitment to that goal in Washington.   
 
The policy question is not, “Is broadband working in America?” It clearly is. The real challenge is to make sure that the remaining Americans who are not on the fast lane of the Internet get on it as quickly as possible.
 
Russell is a Maine lawmaker who serves on the House Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee.