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GUY RAZ, host:

Depending on which statistics you check, the United States ranks either 15th, 20th or 24th in the world when it comes to access to broadband Internet. But any way you look at it, the U.S. lags behind countries like South Korea, Japan, Israel and Qatar. And remember, the Internet was invented here.

Now, this week, the Federal Communications Commission began laying out plans to improve broadband service. It's required to present a formal strategy to Congress by February.

Thomas Bleha is a former foreign service officer who's written a new book about the consequences of our Internet predicament. It's called "Overtaken on the Information Superhighway," and Bleha says while access to broadband is certainly an issue, the speed of the connection is even more important.

Mr. THOMAS BLEHA (Author, "Overtaken on the Information Superhighway"): The average access speed in the United States today is around five megabits per second.

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BLEHA: In Japan, the average speed is over 60 megabits per second...

RAZ: Six...

Mr. BLEHA: ...or 12 times as fast.

RAZ: How did the United States fall so far behind?

Mr. BLEHA: Well, as you know, at the end of the Clinton-Gore administration, we were among the world's leaders. When President Bush and Vice President Cheney came to office, they simply weren't interested. And on every other advanced country, the government has led. Here, the government said the market will lead. In other countries, governments developed strategies with goals and deadlines, and they also subsidized the advance of fiber broadband.

RAZ: What does that do and how does that work?

Mr. BLEHA: Fiber - when we refer to fiber - we're talking about fiber optic cable. There's no basically no upward limit to the speed of fiber. If you send down one color, say you send down a blue color with the signal on it, the standard speed is about 100 megabits per second.

But you can send down a red signal, a green signal, a yellow signal until you can have a thousand megabit connection. That's why some of us - many of us -believe that this is the essential broadband infrastructure of the 21st century.

RAZ: Now, when I go home and I log on to my Internet at home, it seems reasonably quick. I can get on to a Web page pretty fast. I can watch videos and download music. What is the difference between that and what a Japanese or a South Korean user would experience?

Mr. BLEHA: Well, the user would have a full screen high definition picture, for example. But if you look at what a fiber network could do for the country, there are several real benefits.

First, economic. It could produce the kind of productivity gains, for example, that we saw in the late '90s when broadband first came on the scene. It could help us meet the nation's pressing problems; health care. For example, we have doctors at George Washington University Medical Center who are now supervising operations in Saudi Arabia because of these network connections, but they can't do that in the United States.

RAZ: What are the consequences of us not doing anything now?

Mr. BLEHA: The consequences of us not doing anything would be as if we had not created the Interstate Highway System. Maybe that's the best analogy. Many people really didn't see any need for it whatsoever, and now people can't imagine being without it.

RAZ: Thomas Bleha is the author of "Overtaken on the Information Superhighway: How the U.S. Lost Internet Leadership and What to Do About It."

Thomas Bleha, thank you very much.

Mr. BLEHA: You're most welcome. Thank you.

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