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We must make good on the promise of access to broadband for everyone

“This country needs a national goal for broadband technology, for the spread of broadband technology. We ought to have a universal, affordable access for broadband technology by the year 2007.”

Those words were spoken by President George W. Bush nearly five years ago, and they’re as true today as when he said them.

But, sadly, it’s even clearer now than it was five years ago that statements alone won’t finish the job of expanding access to broadband. Instead, the nation that invented the Internet has steadily slipped in global broadband ranking. When the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) first collected data on broadband subscribership in 2001, the U.S. was ranked 4th in the world. By the time President Bush made his promise, we had dropped to 12th. Five years later, we’re ranked an embarrassing 15th.

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We face this challenge because the “laissez-faire” strategy that has proven effective for deploying broadband in densely populated areas has also left behind too much of rural America. According to the Pew Institute’s Internet and Life Project, only 38 percent of rural adults have a broadband connection at home, compared to 57 percent of urban adults. Even more disappointing, there are fewer low-income Americans with broadband connections today than there were just a year ago.

A high-speed Internet connection can be a powerful economic equalizer. This connection provides access to life-saving medical services and technology, as well as critical job training and educational opportunities, and that’s just scratching the surface of the exponential capacity broadband service has to improve lives and serve as a magnet for economic development. But without a strategy to ensure broadband access for all, many Americans will remain at a tremendous economic disadvantage.

Sound familiar? It’s because we’ve faced similar challenges in the past. In the early 1930s, nearly 90 percent of urban Americans had access to electricity, compared to just 10 percent of rural Americans. As part of the New Deal, President Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration to bring electricity to the countryside.

As a result of the federal government’s efforts to establish rural electric cooperatives, the private sector was driven to electrify the countryside as well. The entire economy benefited from lighting up America’s farmland.

Today’s broadband challenge requires a laser-like focus from the federal government. We need a national strategy to get broadband Internet speeds into every American household, and it will require the federal government to partner with the private sector to get it done. President Obama has made it clear that broadband deployment is a priority for his administration, and that he sees it as a job creator. The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act for starters includes several billion dollars in grants and loans to build broadband infrastructure.

This is a good start, but much more remains to be done. We need to look at every available tool for providing broadband access to all Americans. We need to look closely at the Universal Service Fund to determine how the nearly $7 billion in annual cross-subsidies can be best used in a world where communications technology is increasingly dependent on the Internet. And we need to examine our national spectrum policy to determine whether we can encourage innovation in wireless broadband development in a more efficient way. Finally, we need to make sure that we are promoting an Internet that is open, transparent, and does not discriminate with respect to how consumers use it within the confines of the law.

I am looking forward to working with Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay RockefellerJohn (Jay) Davison RockefellerBottom Line World Health Day: It's time to fight preventable disease Lobbying World MORE (D-W.Va.), Houe Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (D-Va.) to establish an aggressive national broadband strategy. With continued focus and leadership at the committee level as well as within the Obama administration, we stand poised to finally make good on President Bush’s promise and once and for all finally close what the politicians used to call “the digital divide.”

Kerry is a senior member of the Senate Commerce Committee.