MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
One of the marquee items in the stimulus package is a plan to bring broadband to places that don't have it. It comes up in almost every speech supporting the package. This was President Obama in Elkhart, Indiana, yesterday.
President BARACK OBAMA: Building new, high-speed broadband lines reaching schools and small businesses in rural Indiana so they can connect and compete with their counterparts in any city of any country in the world.
(Soundbite of applause)
BLOCK: The bill passed by the House and Senate differ on how many billions should be spent on broadband, but there is a broad assumption that its expansion will create economic growth.
NPR's Martin Kaste tried to test that assumption.
MARTIN KASTE: When school lets out in the tiny Washington state town of Republic, they have a traffic jam - not on the roads, on the Internet.
Resident Betty Buckley says if you're at your computer, you notice when the kids get home.
Ms. BETTY BUCKLEY (Co-Founder, Stone Soup): Homework, Facebook, gaming - who knows what the kids are doing? But, boy, you can tell it the way it slows down.
KASTE: Buckley helps to run a Web site called Shop the Frontier. The staff has learned to get its uploading done before the end of the school day. She says this kind of pokey Internet speed can threaten a small town's very survival.
Ms. BUCKLEY: If you don't have some way of transporting your product or pictures of your product, or ways of selling your product, the whole community just dries up and blows away, eventually.
KASTE: But is laying more broadband to small towns like Republic really a good way to stimulate the ailing economy? The idea certainly has its cheerleaders.
Rob Atkinson is head of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington, D.C. He thinks subsidizing broadband will be even more stimulating than the new money for roads and bridges.
Mr. ROB ATKINSON (President, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation): It turns out when people get broadband, they're more likely to buy a new computer. They're more likely to buy a video camera or maybe upgrade to a digital camera. So you have this additional spending that consumers will do, which will spur economic activity and get us back on recovery faster.
KASTE: Atkinson points to studies that suggest that towns with broadband grow faster than similar towns without. But it's hard to say if broadband contributes to that growth or just correlates with it.
John Horrigan of the Pew Internet and American Life Project says we don't even have a reliable national map of where broadband is and isn't. He says telecom companies guard that kind of information pretty closely.
Mr. JOHN HORRIGAN (Associate Director of Research, Pew Internet and American Life Project): The lack of data makes it, then, difficult for economists to undertake the analysis to see whether there is a link between broadband deployment and use, and jobs.
KASTE: It may also be a leap to assume that if you build it, they will come. According to a survey by Pew, of all the Americans still using dial-up, only 14 percent say it's because they can't get broadband where they live. Other factors are more important, such as the price of broadband and the fact that some people just don't want it.
Mr. JIM HARPER (Technology Expert, Cato Institute): Let the wire, let the fiber go where the demand is.
KASTE: Jim Harper, the information technology expert at the Libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, says the government shouldn't be pushing broadband into areas that aren't willing or able to pay for it. In the case of sparsely populated rural areas, he says, the government subsidies might actually get in the way of innovation.
Mr. HARPER: The best thing that could happen in broadband is for there to be additional sources of broadband. Right now, we have cable and DSL as the two big ones. We need some wireless. We need some other platforms. But those companies are very small. They don't exist yet, in Washington terms, so they aren't going to receive those subsidies.
KASTE: But proponents of government-subsidized Internet links say broadband should follow the model of traditional phone service, which has long been subsidized, both for rural customers and for some poor people in the cities. As broadband becomes an everyday necessity, they say, the government should make sure that everyone can get connected.
Martin Kaste, NPR News.