Why Government Should Meddle in Broadband

[qi:004] With the change in administration it’s time to stop pussyfooting around the issue of broadband access in the U.S. It quite honestly sucks. Yes, some people have access to FiOS, but others have access to speeds that rank even lower than the lame 768 kbps classification of broadband adopted this year (!) by the FCC. Uneven coverage and a lack of competition mean that we in the U.S. pay more for our broadband than¬†many other countries and that about 1 percent of the population can’t get access at all. This has got to change, and the private market isn’t going to do it because it simply isn’t profitable to string fiber, coax or even copper everywhere people have settled.

With consumer groups and industry players calling for a broadband bailout, I’m inclined to agree, even if it does mean Google (s GOOG) gets more broadband subscribers for free. The government needs to get involved, and it needs to throw some money at the problem — albeit in a highly organized way. I’ll argue later about what should be done, but first here’s a few reasons why it’s important. Broadband is like electricity and running water — every town, if not every person, needs access to it. Not to watch cats on treadmills or download porn, but because it gives people cheaper access to the world.

Educational Access

Today the New York Times ran an article about the rising costs of a college education and offered up the idea of distance learning as being one solution to rising costs. I don’t think distance learning can substitute for the entire college experience, but having participated in several distance learning classes, it can be used in conjunction with meetings online or weekly in-person meetings¬† to create a rich learning and discussion environment. Broadband makes that possible today, and faster speeds will only add to the interactivity of those online environments — making a college education more accessible. The kids who most benefit from this are not living in FiOS areas; they are in poorer areas where ISPs try to avoid or delay launching high speed services. I know, I live in one of those areas. The government needs to step up to improve this access divide.

Medical Care Improvements

Broadband also can save on medical costs and improve access to health care. A release issued today highlighted radiologists’ frustration with quality of care. Ninety-four percent of radiologists surveyed blamed missed or delayed diagnosis on the inability of medical imaging systems to communicate with information systems of physicians and hospitals. Delivering radiological scans via broadband requires fat pipes and rapid speeds, but the benefit to patients, insurers and doctors would be many: fewer scans, faster delivery of images where they are needed, and lower costs associated with the process.

Telecommuting Expansion

Another benefit of better broadband would be the ability for people to telecommute. This has far-reaching benefits, from fewer cars on the roads to increasing a family’s resilience in the face of economic uncertainty. As a telecommuter, when I change jobs I don’t have to sell my house, uproot my husband’s career or leave the network of friends and family who support us. The more people who have that flexibility, the less traumatizing job loss can be both for the individual family and for a particular region.

Those are a few of the reasons the government should care about broadband access. Broadband can help promote an educated citizenry, could help lower the costs of providing health care and could increase workforce flexibility and decrease traffic. So while older generations of legislators might deride the web as a series of tubes, the truth of the matter is those tubes could be the lifeblood for citizen access to education, information and services. We need policies and funding to make sure broadband reaches everyone, and we need it today. It would’t be a bailout. It would be an investment.