Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Remember Obama’s National Broadband Plan? Neither Does Anyone Else.

Like it or not, 2012 is an election year in the U.S. That means there is, and will be, a great deal of political rhetoric slung in multiple directions — lots of speeches and debates; lots of ads, both negative and positive — meant to sway the opinions of people who are likely to vote.

A great deal of this campaigning takes place in the traditional media forums: TV, radio, local newspapers, and voters occasionally get to meet the candidates in person.

But even more of this takes place on the Web. Practically every political ad that runs on a television screen anywhere in the country is also placed on YouTube and promoted on Twitter and Facebook. So are speeches and debates. This is good for voters who don’t watch a lot of TV, so they can go back and evaluate what candidates says and make a judgement about them on their own time.

That is, if you can get to them. For most Americans, access to a solid broadband Internet connection is as readily available as an electrical connection, and only a phone call away. But for roughly a third of the country, it’s not so easy. That means that about a third of the nation’s population is less able to participate in the democratic process the way the rest of us do.

That, to me, is a troubling thought, when I consider the nation’s broadband-adoption problem. It basically comes down to this: Lower-populated rural areas and some inner-city areas don’t have the same access to the Internet that most Americans take almost for granted. Cable and phone companies often opt not to build the infrastructure needed in certain lightly populated areas, because they can’t justify the investment.

When he came into office in 2009, one cornerstone of President Obama’s technology policy concerned correcting this via grants included in the economic stimulus package. In 2010, Obama delivered the National Broadband Plan. And last year, the president talked to Congress about his hopes to bring broadband to 98 percent of the country, and using wireless technology to do it.

Little has worked. A new study, out today from TechNet, a tech-industry lobbying group, says that broadband adoption at the national level has plateaued at 68 percent of the population, only slight higher than the 65 percent it was when Obama became president.

What happened? Lots of people and organizations with great ideas emerged to try and tackle the problem, the report finds. But they all suffer from a severe lack of coordination, and wildly different visions of what the outcome should be. “Stakeholders are flying blind when it comes to understanding best practices to improve broadband adoption …” the report reads. It goes on to say, “To the extent that poor policy coordination hampers efforts to increase broadband adoption, we run the risk of having a less inclusive society, a smaller domestic market for tech goods and services, and a less innovative economy.”

One problem is simple demographics: A 2011 survey by the government’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration found that only 43 percent of households earning $25,000 or less had broadband at home, and that only 46 percent of those with less than a high school diploma have it.

Then there’s the economy. A Pew survey found that 9 percent of people who at one time had broadband had cut their service off during the previous 12 months because of economic concerns. And that figure rose to more than 16 percent of people earning $30,000 a year or less.

There are apparently historical precedents for this sort of thing. During the Great Depression, telephone adoption dropped from 42 percent in 1929 to 31 percent in 1934. Electrical service leveled off at 67 percent during the Depression, and didn’t resume climbing until later.

A lot of people think that this same demographic just uses smartphones instead, but the data in the report shows that’s not the case generally, and if you added “smartphone-only” users to broadband users, you still end up with only a 73 percent adoption rate.

And this cost of “digital exclusion,” TechNet finds, is more than just participation in the election process. Employers increasingly require that applications for jobs be filed online. Healthcare is increasingly tracked online. Even just taking advantage of good deals on Groupon or LivingSocial more or less implies broadband access.

What to do? Get everyone on the same page, for one thing. The report suggests getting the numerous federal and state efforts pulling in one direction on such aspects of the problem as collecting reliable data, and setting an agreed-upon set of best practices.

There’s also the option of leaving well enough alone. Demographics have a way of shifting over time. Old people who don’t bother with broadband will die, and younger people who can’t imagine living without it will either demand it where they live or move to places where they can get it. As I learned in 2008 when I wrote this story for Businessweek, sometimes that can be as easy as moving to the other side of a street. Sometimes it’s just a matter of waiting for the cable company to offer service in your area.

My guess is that this is a problem that’s not going to easily solve itself with a market-based approach, but so far the government-based options aren’t looking so good, either.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik