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Study: U.S. broadband goal nearly reached

In 2004, President Bush pledged that all Americans should have affordable access to high-speed Internet service by 2007. A report to be released Thursday by the administration says it has succeeded — mostly.
/ Source: The Associated Press

In 2004, President Bush pledged that all Americans should have affordable access to high-speed Internet service by 2007. A report to be released Thursday by the administration says it has succeeded — mostly.

"Networked Nation: Broadband in America" is an upbeat assessment of the administration's efforts to spur growth and competition in the high-speed Internet market. Critics said the report's conclusion is too rosy.

The report was prepared by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency within the Commerce Department that acts as the president's principal adviser on telecommunications and information policy issues.

The report concludes that "a reasonable assessment of the available data indicates" that the objective of affordable access to broadband for all has been realized "to a very great degree."

Richard Russell, deputy director for technology in the executive office of the president, also answered the question in the affirmative, but with a caveat.

"The answer is by most metrics yes," he said. "However, there's still a lot more that needs to be done."

Broadband penetration has been a sore point for the government and industry as international surveys have shown that the United States, the birthplace of the Internet, lags behind other nations. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked the U.S. in 15th place for broadband lines per person in 2006, down from No. 4 in 2001.

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.

Critics say the FCC's data is misleading. A broadband provider has to serve only a single residence in a ZIP code for it to be counted. The agency has launched its own inquiry into how it can "develop a more accurate picture" of broadband deployment.

"More data is necessary," Meredith Attwell Baker, acting chief of NTIA, said in an interview. "We support the FCC's current efforts to produce better data."

A bill sponsored by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., that would develop an annual inventory of existing broadband services has passed the House and awaits action in the Senate.

The report paints a picture of a broadband environment that is becoming increasingly competitive, for which it credits the president's policies. Bush has promoted polices that created "an environment in which broadband innovation and competition can flourish," the report states.

Among them: a freeze on state and local taxes on Internet access; a policy of clearing airwaves for use by commercial providers of wireless broadband service; and continuing efforts to "clear away regulatory obstacles" that might thwart investment in new technologies.

"If you look at the administration policies from the beginning, there's been a comprehensive set of technology, regulatory and fiscal economic policies that have laid the foundation for the robust competitive environment that we are enjoying today," Baker said.

The FCC numbers indicate that the total number of broadband lines has grown from 6.8 million in December 2000 to 82.5 million in December 2006.

But defining broadband is a highly subjective exercise. The FCC defined it as 200 kilobits per second. That's about four times the speed of a good dial-up connection and barely fast enough to stream video.

"The notion that a 200-kilobit connection is broadband is itself ludicrous," said Derek Turner, research director for Free Press, a nonprofit public interest group that studies media and technology issues. Turner wrote a report critical of the FCC's data analysis.

Turner said there have been great strides in the growth of broadband, but said there is still a digital divide.

"In rich suburban areas they're getting broadband," he said. "But in many poor and many rural areas we're not seeing the same kind of competitive marketplace that President Bush outlined in his speech in 2004."