President Obama signed a memorandum on Monday committing the federal government to expand America's access to high-speed Internet by increasing the amount of broadband airwaves owned by the government and private sector.
The announcement throws White House support behind part of the Federal Communications Commission's ambitious National Broadband Plan. It also follows closed-door meetings between the FCC and the country's biggest broadband Internet companies — an effort to smooth ruffled feathers over the commission's plans to regulate broadband Internet access.
The big Internet companies oppose more regulation while public interest advocates have rallied behind the FCC. The tricky thing is that both parties claim the data are on their side.
Internet companies and their backers, like Texas Rep. Joe Barton, like to say the free market is doing fine on its own.
"As everybody knows, if it's not broke, don't fix it," Barton said at a March congressional hearing. "And y'all are trying to fix something that in most cases isn't broke. Ninety-five percent of America has broadband."
Barton is kind of right, but he's also kind of wrong.
Ninety-five percent of Americans do have access to broadband where they live, but when it comes to adoption or actually signing up for broadband at home, the number is much lower — closer to 63 percent.
Derek Turner, research director for the public interest group Free Press, says the numbers don't lie. "For the providers to try to say that there's no problem, it's merely just a smoke screen," he says.
When it comes to broadband adoption, Turner says the U.S. has fallen behind other developed countries, including such technological powerhouses as ... Estonia?
"Depending on whose numbers you look at, we're a middle-of-the-pack performer," he says. "But even more alarming is the direction we're heading. We're dropping in the rankings — countries are outperforming us."
Classic Glass-Half-Full, Glass-Half-Empty
The two narratives about how easy and cheap it is to get online in the U.S. are so starkly different that it's hard to believe both sides are talking about the same Internet. But John Horrigan, who studied broadband adoption at the Pew Internet & American Life Project and now at the FCC, says the Internet of these two narratives is actually one and the same.
"There are a lot of different measures that float around," he says. "So people might pick a number that makes their case and not look at numbers that might suggest a somewhat different story."
Even Bruce Mehlman, co-chair of the industry-supported Internet Innovation Alliance, which opposes more regulation, acknowledges that the story of broadband in the U.S. is a classic glass-half-full, glass-half-empty predicament. Still, he says he thinks broadband adoption in the U.S. is going pretty well considering broadband has only been available for 10 years.
"For the optimist, you'd say within a decade we've seen greater broadband deployment than you saw for cell phones, than for cable TV, than for personal computers," Mehlman says. "It's one of the great technology success stories in history."
That may be great for business but, according to Joel Kelsey of the nonprofit Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, it's not so great for consumers. "The broadband marketplace in America suffers from two critical failures: high prices and low speeds," he says.
According to Kelsey, 96 percent of Americans can only get broadband from two or fewer companies. That's good for those phone and cable companies, and their shareholders — but it's bad public policy because it leaves millions of consumers without affordable broadband.
"If you talk to [the] industry," Kelsey says, "they think of broadband as a private commercial service akin to pay TV or cable TV."
On the other hand, Kelsey says, "There's a lot of folks who think it is an essential input into this nation's economy — an essential infrastructure question."
Kelsey argues that because broadband has become a crucial part of how we communicate, shop, work and even apply for jobs, it should be regulated like other technologies we consider essential — including electricity and telephone service.
But Mehlman at the Internet Innovation Alliance says Americans don't need more government intervention to make broadband faster and cheaper. "We haven't yet and that's in the first decade," he says. "In the second decade, the marketplace is only going to be that much more competitive."
FCC officials don't seem so sure. They say some basic regulations are necessary to protect consumers and spur competition.
As for the big Internet companies, they're already pushing back with numbers of their own: lobbying dollars.