Few would argue that universal access to high-speed internet service is a key to the nation’s economic competitiveness; at schools and colleges, for instance, the continued growth of distance education is dependent on better, faster, and more reliable internet service, including to students’ homes.

At the beginning of the year, Bush administration officials painted a rosy picture of the state of broadband access across the United States. A report from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) concluded that the goal of affordable access to broadband service for everyone has been realized "to a very great degree."

The NTIA report drew its conclusion using data from the Federal Communications Commission and other sources. The FCC reported that more than 99 percent of all U.S. ZIP codes received broadband service from at least one provider by the end of 2006.

But critics noted that the FCC’s data are misleading. Under this scenario, they said, a broadband provider only has to serve a single residence in a ZIP code for it to be counted. Critics also pointed to a 2006 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that ranked the U.S. 15th in the world for broadband lines per person in 2006, down from No. 4 in 2001. And indeed, their concerns appeared justified as later developments unfolded.

In February, Japan launched a new, experimental internet satellite designed to give extremely high speeds to rural and other areas that have been left off that country’s already high-speed grid. And in August, a report from the Communications Workers of America said the average download speeds for broadband services across the United States have remained relatively unchanged over the past year, as the U.S. continues to lag behind other countries. The report claimed that average download speeds in the U.S. increased only 0.4 megabits per second, to 2.3Mbps. By contrast, the average download speed in Japan is 63 Mbps and in South Korea, 49 Mbps.

Around the same time as the NTIA issued its report, the higher-education technology group Educause called on the federal government, state governments, and the private sector to come together to solve what it called a U.S. "crisis" in high-speed internet connectivity. The Educause report, "A Blueprint for Big Broadband," said the demand for bandwidth in the United States has accelerated well beyond the capacity of current broadband networks–a problem that has enormous implications for U.S. education.

To help advance the spread of broadband internet service nationwide, the FCC voted in November to open up unused, unlicensed portions of the television airwaves known as "white spaces" to deliver wireless broadband service to more Americans.

The FCC’s plan will allow the use of white spaces to provide broadband service after the transition from analog to digital TV broadcasting in February, but it faces its own share of critics. TV broadcasters argue that using white spaces to deliver wireless internet access could disrupt their over-the-air signals, and manufacturers and users of wireless microphones–including sports leagues, church leaders, performers, and even some educators–also have voiced concerns about signal interference.

These concerns didn’t stop Dell Inc. from moving quickly after the FCC’s vote. Just one day later, Dell announced that it would add a new wireless option to future laptops by installing radio chips that provide connectivity over the unused television spectrum.

Another option for boosting the availability of broadband internet access appears to have stalled. The Associated Press reported in May that the idea of providing high-speed internet service over power lines now looks like it has died in infancy, as several trials of broadband over power lines (BPL) have folded. Compared with coaxial cables and copper phone lines, AP reported, power lines are poor conduits for data.

Yet another challenge to ensuring that all Americans have high-speed internet access was revealed in a July report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which noted that attitude, rather than availability, might be the key reason more Americans don’t have broadband service.

Only 14 percent of dial-up users say they’re stuck with the older, slower connectivity method because they can’t get broadband service in their neighborhoods, Pew reported. Thirty-five percent say they’re still on dial-up because broadband prices are too high, while another 19 percent say nothing would persuade them to upgrade.

Aiming to address the issue of cost, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin pushed a controversial proposal to blanket the nation with a free wireless broadband network that would provide basic high-speed connections for people who can’t afford the premium services offered by the big phone and cable companies, or for people who live in places where these services are unavailable.

Martin hoped the FCC would vote to auction off a slice of federal airwaves to a wireless provider who would build such a network, based on a plan by a startup venture called M2Z Networks. But he and his fellow commissioners cancelled a vote on the plan in December in the face of strong opposition.

Led by T-Mobile USA, the nation’s wireless carriers have been lobbying to defeat Martin’s proposal, which they say would interfere with their own services. The Bush administration wasn’t happy, either: It urged the FCC not to proceed with an auction that would favor one company’s business model. And some key Democrats on Capitol Hill called on the agency to hold off on any controversial items until the Obama administration takes over.

Despite falling just short of an FCC vote on the plan, M2Z co-founder John Muleta insisted the company would continue its campaign to gain access to the spectrum it needs. "I’m optimistic," he said, "because this idea that we need to change the way the broadband market is structured has received serious consideration."

Related links:

Administration: Broadband goal nearly reached

Report urges U.S. to think ‘big’ about broadband

Japan boosts internet speeds with ultra-broadband satellite

Broadband over power lines fails to catch on

Municipal broadband projects under attack

SETDA urges schools to boost bandwidth

Study: Many dial-up users don’t want broadband

Study shows U.S. broadband speeds continue to lag

Experts call for broadband transparency

Feds OK broadband over TV white spaces

Dell to offer ‘white space’ connectivity in laptops

Free broadband plan raises critics’ ire

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