Bill Knight - August 27

Macomb, IL – This week is the latest deadline in revived interest in, and progress toward, bringing better Internet access to rural areas - an issue important to west-central Illinois.

Rural clinics could be better connected; small businesses could compete globally for customers; students of all ages could enroll in more and better learning experiences; jobs would result in small towns and even more rural areas that too often are ignored by programs focusing on big industries, big cities or Wall Street.

The issue isn't new, of course, although it was largely ignored for most of the last eight years. These days, the federal stimulus package has a $7.2 billion allocation set up to expand broadband networks into rural areas and urban neighborhoods where people can't afford high-speed Internet, and both business and government are responding to the need, whether for public-interest or commercial reasons.

Most agree that fast Internet connections for areas without them will result in improved health-care efficiencies, better education through distance-learning opportunities, increased business traffic from outside the immediate area, greater transparency in government and greater effectiveness in public safety, and more jobs. Each percentage point increase in broadband penetration could add more than 290,000 jobs, according to a study by the nonpartisan Brookings Institution.

At least 14 countries have faster Internet systems that reach more of their people - and cost less, according to a report in Washington Monthly magazine.

Earlier this month, broadband providers and eager entrepreneurs applied to receive some of that stimulus funding, disbursed by the Agriculture and Commerce departments. This week is the deadline for another step in the Federal Communication Commission's work on developing a national plan for broadband by next winter.

There are detractors, but they're not the tin-foil hat variety. Critics mostly are either advocates of even more effort being put into expanding broadband, or technical types who can't agree on which of several approaches will work best. There are many high-speed, fiber-optic lines from coast to coast, for example, but not that many come in to homes, which too often depend on old copper wires owned by cable or phone companies, which in turn frequently are in such near-monopoly situations that there's little incentive to change.

The six main choices are fiber-optic lines, plus DSL (digital subscriber lines), hybrid fiber/coaxial cable, power-line/carrier-current access, Wi-Fi, or WiMax (a slower Wi-Fi relying on a cell-tower-like provider). Once a choice is picked, there are still questions about the funding and the political backbone.

For instance, the governments of South Korea and Japan subsidized Internet service providers growing fiber-optic networks (an approach that sounds like a stereotypical Democratic idea). In Switzerland, the government offered tax credits that encouraged competition (which sounds like a stereotypical Republican approach).

Some American advocates support a government broadband service, sort of an Interstate highway system version of the Information Superhighway, permitting private competition - like FedEx and UPS compete with the Post Office.

In a season of misinformed or hateful disruptions at town-hall meetings, there's little optimism that Capitol Hill sees beyond lobbyists, campaign contributors and next election. So the executive branch may have to frame the issue and shape the plan to serve rural areas without the population or public-interest grassroots groups to get Congress's attention with the number of votes or political pressure.

Meanwhile, the FCC is looking to define "broadband" better than its current, clumsy, wordy verbiage. (Wouldn't "fast and reliable connectivity to the Internet" be a starting point?)

Anyway, the FCC invites comments by next Monday, and replies by September 8. Its national broadband plan is due Feb. 17, 2010.