U.S. Crafts Plan To Quicken Broadband Speeds

Job seekers surf the Web at a Los Angeles computer lab. i i

hide captionJob seekers surf the Web at a Los Angeles computer lab. Grants and loans funded by the Recovery Act to expand U.S. broadband service will eventually invest a total of $7.2 billion.

David McNew/Getty Images
Job seekers surf the Web at a Los Angeles computer lab.

Job seekers surf the Web at a Los Angeles computer lab. Grants and loans funded by the Recovery Act to expand U.S. broadband service will eventually invest a total of $7.2 billion.

David McNew/Getty Images

Imagine surfing an Internet that's blazingly fast: Music and movies stream in with no interruptions; software programs download in seconds. This may not happen anytime soon — but the government does have a plan for better broadband access.

As technology expert Mario Armstrong tells NPR's Steve Inskeep, public schools could see a big boost from the plan.

"To be able to connect kids from their home back to the schools — that simple thing doesn't happen today," Armstrong said, "and it could happen if we had a national broadband policy."

The national broadband plan will be delivered to Congress on March 17. It will certainly call for bringing high-speed Internet connections to more Americans. The program would mean better connectivity for public buildings, from schools to hospitals. The government initiative is particularly meant to help students and job seekers, as well as medical staff and first-responders on emergency teams.

To accomplish that, the United States needs to improve its rate of adopting broadband — the U.S. was recently ranked at No. 15 in that category by a global survey.

Armstrong thinks the new national broadband plan will benefit smaller companies that are hoping to break into the market, as well as one very large company: Google. The giant search company has announced plans to build ultrafast broadband infrastructure in selected test markets around the country — at speeds as fast at 1 gigabit.

One of the key goals of the national broadband plan will be to provide Internet access to Americans in rural areas who don't have any — and to urban residents who can't afford it. Improved access and better connection speeds are crucial to the plan's success.

Armstrong says it's hard to believe that in 2010, "there are people still trying to get access to information — just like everyone else — but they're doing it at turtle speeds, through dial-up."

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The U.S. government has a plan to expand broadband access. More people would have more access to music and movies more quickly over the Internet. The government will present details of that plan later this month.

Mario Armstrong, who monitors technology developments for MORNING EDITION, tells us what the government is up to.

MARIO ARMSTRONG: Well, Steve, the government wants to be able to make broadband accessible, high-speed Internet access, accessible for every American. I mean, the goal really is to try to get as many people to adopt and utilize high-speed Internet as much as possible. That's the endgame here.

INSKEEP: Interesting that theyve laid out some priorities that had to do with public buildings and public places. They want every classroom in every school in America to be connected to broadband, every hospital, clinic and first responder to be connected to broadband and have the ability to send medical information very quickly, very complicated digital images and so forth. Jobs seekers should have access to this through public libraries. All of which is very interesting, although, of course, most Internet use is in private spaces, I suppose.

ARMSTRONG: Well, most Internet use is in private space, and that's part of the problem. It needs to be more in the public space. And when you talk about it seems interesting, I really think it's actually vital to have all of these types of different opportunities. To be able to connect kids from their home back to the schools, that simple thing doesn't happen today and it could happen if we had a national broadband policy.

INSKEEP: What does it take?

ARMSTRONG: Well, its going to take a lot of work. I mean, you know, you look at our ranking right now, we're 15th when it looks at broadband adoption specifically. I mean we're, you know, behind places like Seoul, Korea and Scandinavia. And a lot of folks will say to me, well Mario, that's because its geography. You know, most residents live in a high-rise or high-density units and its easier to...

INSKEEP: Like Japan or some place that, sure. Sure.

ARMSTRONG: Correct. But the bottom line is most of their citizens in countries that are doing better than us in broadband adoption is because their governments made some formal policy decisions that created really a national priority. So, when you look at South Korea, their government clearly articulated a vision for a national technology initiative. And I honestly believe that by having this national initiative from the government, it created more broadband competition which in turn help prices fall and help speeds rise.

INSKEEP: Mario, can I mention one thing, because the federal stimulus bill that passed about a year ago now included more than $7 billion for one piece of this. It was an effort to extend broadband access, especially in rural areas, and we just had a report on this program recently that telecom companies were resisting that money. Are corporations going to allow expanded broadband access?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah. You know, this is going to be, Steve, a major challenge because, see, a lot of these telecommunications companies are saying we dont want the stimulus funds because - and here's where I think the big challenge is - its requiring these companies to have open access to the lines. And what that means is these telecommunication companies would have to share their lines with competitors and...

INSKEEP: And they dont want to do that.

ARMSTRONG: They haven't shown that they wanted to do that in the past, so why would they do that going forward? But this opens up a tremendous opportunity for smaller companies as well as companies like Google, who have recently announced their big Google Fiber for Communities with the goal of helping to experiment with new ways to make Internet access better and faster for people.

And so now you have cities and community groups all across the country, people in my hometown in Baltimore have started bmorefiber.com, all with the idea of one - this opportunity of having faster Internet connectivity in their backyard to help their businesses, to help their schools, to help health care, to help fix social challenges that are happening in their respective cities.

So here you have a company that's not a telecommunications company, Google, coming in saying we're going to look at providing 10 times faster than what the FCC is proposing because we feel that there needs to be some type of shakeup in this industry to get us there.

INSKEEP: So Google thinks that private industry can step in here?

ARMSTRONG: Absolutely. And, you know, other people would say, well, private industry is already stepping up. They're putting significant investment into broadband. That's why you see all these commercials and you see all these things about 3G and bigger networks. But the bottom line is if you look around and you look at the data, you see that there are not enough choices in enough areas throughout the U.S.

INSKEEP: Are people in rural communities, public schools, other areas that dont have broadband clamoring for it now?

ARMSTRONG: Unbelievably so. I mean I Twitter with these folks, Facebook with them. Some of them are telling me how they are still on dial-up. And I, you know what, it's hard for me to really understand what that must feel like. I mean, I clearly remember being on dial-up. But golly, that's been so long now its hard for me to really understand that in today's age, 2010, that there are people still trying to get access to information just like everyone else, but they're doing it at turtle speeds, through dial-up.

INSKEEP: Mario Armstrong, always a pleasure to talk with you.

ARMSTRONG: Likewise, Steve. Thanks for having me.

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