SAN JOSE — This is the future in America as high-tech leaders see it: People work from home more often. They watch high-definition TV on their computers. They get information on national security instantaneously.
The key ingredient, the boosters say, is for everyone to have always-on Internet connections that pump data nearly 2,000 times faster than today’s dial-up modems.
This week, a prominent high-tech lobbying group challenged the government to make that happen by 2010, saying universal broadband access should be a “national imperative” just like the 1960s drive to land on the moon.
The report from TechNet asks the government to loosen regulations on telecommunications and refrain from imposing new ones. It doesn’t seek subsidies or tax credits for companies that would roll out the technology, only for poor and rural users who otherwise could not afford broadband.
Not surprisingly, the TechNet initiative has the support of Cisco Systems Inc., Intel Corp., AT&T Corp., Microsoft Corp. and other companies that stand to benefit from a souped-up Internet.
Others question whether the plan is feasible, worthwhile or does anything to promote competition.
“It’s not in the consumers’ best interests, but that’s not what this is about,” said Mike Jackman, executive director of the California Internet Service Provider Association, a group of 140 independent Internet companies. “It’s about big companies protecting their big customers.”
Kathie Hackler, a broadband analyst at Gartner Dataquest, applauded the goal of keeping the United States from falling further behind other countries, such as South Korea and Germany, in broadband deployment.
But she was skeptical of TechNet’s suggestion that the industry could cooperate better if only the government would eliminate uncertainty over how it will regulate investments in new broadband networks.
Forrester Research analyst Carl Howe was even more circumspect.
“There is no proof, in any way, shape or manner, that says if we give more broadband to everybody it’s going to make us more productive,” he said. “It will make us more connected. It might make us happier. But I’m not sure it’s a better use of our money than putting 50,000 more teachers in schools.”
Forrester says more than 11 million U.S. households have broadband service now, generally through cable TV lines, satellite TV hookups or phone wires that have been transformed into digital subscriber lines, or DSL.
But only 12 percent of consumers who could get broadband have sought it. Many are put off by service problems and high prices.
Cable broadband costs an average of $44 a month, while DSL averages $52, according to ARS Inc., a market research firm.
Many Internet service providers say the telecom giants keep prices artificially high by charging excessive fees for access to the phone lines they control. Telecoms counter that DSL in particular is hindered by a patchwork of local, state and federal fees and taxes.
Still, the number of broadband households will hit 54 million by 2006 even if no significant changes in government regulation are made, Forrester projects.
TechNet calls for accelerating that significantly: not only getting broadband to 100 million homes and small businesses by 2010, but at speeds of 100 megabits per second. That is as much as 250 times faster than the typical broadband connection in most American homes now.
That would require an overhaul of the existing telecommunications infrastructure, digging up streets in neighborhoods across the country to install new fiber-optic cables. The estimated cost: at least $100 billion, perhaps $300 billion.
But TechNet cites a Brookings Institution study that found that the improvements in education, health and office productivity from universal broadband could generate $500 billion for the economy.
Though most consumers haven’t embraced broadband yet, TechNet believes just about everyone would want it once new applications are developed to take advantage of super-fast connection speeds.
In addition to high speeds, broadband has the advantage of being always on — no waiting for a modem connection to quickly check e-mail or download a song.
With the blazing Internet speeds envisioned by TechNet, home computers could easily facilitate sophisticated video conferencing and quickly download high-quality digital entertainment.
Congress already is considering several ways of increasing broadband deployment. A bill sponsored by Reps. Billy Tauzin, R-La., and John Dingell, D-Mich., would relax requirements on local phone companies, letting them provide Internet access nationwide without requiring them to share their networks with competitors.
TechNet is officially neutral on the bill, calling it “a battle of the past.”
It also suggests the government allocate more of the radio spectrum to wireless broadband networks.
Every major industrialized country except for the United States and Italy has a national policy to spur broadband deployment — and Italy is developing one, argues TechNet.
“We are falling behind in our K-through-12 education system, and now we are falling behind in broadband,” Cisco chief executive John Chambers said. “For our nation’s competitiveness and the future of our economic development, we must not fail.”
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