Old-fashioned telephone service on a nationwide basis has been a U.S. objective since 1934, and it has been largely achieved, with 95 percent penetration. Today one of the hot buttons in telecom policy in the US and Europe (and elsewhere) is the need to provide universal coverage for broadband service that can make the internet fully available to users, particularly in remote areas or deprived inner-city zones. (“Broadband access” means the facility allowing an individual computing device to connect by telephone, cable or wireless, to the internet at a megabit-per-second speed, with the target rising toward 100 mbps in many places.)
Access to internet is increasingly seen as a necessary tool for living in society today – to facilitate on-line access to government services and promote education and productivity. In some places it is being hailed an “inherent right” that should be treated as an “entitlement” -- to be supplied by government if necessary. Finland recently became the first country in the world to mandate broadband access for its citizens. As of June 2010 every Finn will have the guaranteed right to a one-megabit connection, and by the end of 2015 that right will be expanded to 100 mbps. Finland already has 30.7 percent penetration on a per capita basis, according to the Organization for Economics and Cooperation in Europe, and 69% penetration on a per household basis, according to the on-line site, Strategy Analytics. The U.S. is behind Europe and broadband leaders in Asia such as South Korea (95 percent penetration on a per-household basis) and Singapore (88 percent).
Now the Obama administration is bent on catching up. Amid the 2009 economic crisis, the Reinvestment Act mandated the creation of a plan for national broadband access, with a blueprint that must be rolled out by the Federal Communications Commission early in 2010. The US currently has 27.4 % penetration on a per capita basis and 60 % penetration on a per household basis. On November 13, 2009 the 160 members of the US Broadband Coalition, a private advocacy group, released a report that called for universal broadband connectivity by 2015. “Every American home, business, and public and private institution should have access to affordable high-speed broadband connections to the Internet,” concluded the Report. (Find the full report at www.bb4us.net.) The report did not reach consensus on the precise data speeds and timetables for reaching them. But the coalition leaders have proposed 90% availability at 100 mbps rising to one giga bite per second) for residential households by 2015. This “entitlement” issue was explored at a European Institute meeting involving Blair Levin, executive director of the Omnibus Broadband Initiative of the FCC, and Ed Richard, Chief Executive of UK’s communications regulatory agency Ofcom. Mr. Levin indicated his view that universal access to broadband communications in the US is essential, not only to individual citizens, but also for long-term, sustainable economic growth and productivity. While complete coverage in the US of very high bandwidth would likely cost some US $350 billion, 90 per cent coverage with lesser bandwidth, would be considerably cheaper. The forthcoming FCC report of Levin’s Broadband Initiative, will be a dominant theme next year and perhaps an issue in the mid-term Congressional elections of next year.
Ofcom’s Richards told the EI seminar that the issue of broadband access was becoming “increasingly political.” In the UK today, said Richards, 75-80 percent of the country has a choice among six infrastructure providers, even though most services cover “the last mile” to a household by using the “local loop” of incumbent national provider, British Telecom, to connect end-users to the internet provider. In the UK, said Richards, “universal service” to at least 2 mbps has become a public policy objective of Ofcom. The OECD measures UK broadband penetration at 28.5 percent, on a per capita basis and Strategy Analytics counts UK with 67 percent penetration on a per-household basis.
Fiber optic deployment in the UK of perhaps 65 percent of the country will be accomplished by a market led approach, said Richards. For the final 30+ percent coverage, Ofcom has proposed a 50 pence-a-month levy on every broadband line in the UK to pay for the construction of fiber optic cable in places where it may not be commercially viable. The proposal is controversial, said Richards, and has not yet been adopted.
William Marmon, a former phone company executive, is assistant managing editor of European Affairs.