MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Today, the White House threw its support behind part of the Federal Communications Commission's ambitious national broadband plan.
President Obama signed a presidential memorandum that commits the government to increasing the amount of wireless spectrum. The goal is to improve Americans' access to high-speed Internet. Today's announcement follows closed-door meetings the FCC held last week with the biggest broadband companies. The firms are opposed to the commission's plan to regulate broadband Internet access.
Public interest advocates have rallied behind the FCC.
And as Joel Rose reports, both groups claim the facts are on their side.
JOEL ROSE: Internet companies and their backers like to say the free market is doing fine on its own.
Here's Texas Representative Joe Barton at a congressional hearing in March.
Representative JOE BARTON (Republican, Texas): Ninety-five percent of America has broadband.
ROSE: Well, yes and no. Ninety-five percent of Americans do have access to broadband where they live, but when it comes to adoption, actually signing up for broadband at home, the number is much lower, around 63 percent.
Mr. DEREK TURNER (Research Director, Free Press): The numbers don't lie. For the providers to try to say that there's no problem, it's merely just a smoke screen.
ROSE: Derek Turner is research director for the public interest group Free Press. When it comes to broadband adoption, Turner says the U.S. has fallen behind other developed countries, including such technological powerhouses as Estonia.
Mr. TURNER: Depending on whose numbers you look at, we're definitely a middle-of-the-pack performer. But even more alarming is the direction we're heading. We're trending downward. We're dropping in the rankings. Countries are bypassing us.
ROSE: 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 they are, says John Horrigan. He studied broadband adoption for years, first at the Pew Internet & American Life Project and now at the FCC.
Mr. JOHN HORRIGAN (Associate Director for Research, Internet & American Life Project, Pew Research Center)): There are a lot of different measures that float around. And so people might pick a number that makes their case and not look at numbers that might suggest a somewhat different story.
Mr. BRUCE MEHLMAN (Co-Chairman, Internet Innovation Alliance): Broadband presents one of the great glass half-empty, glass half-full stories.
ROSE: Bruce Mehlman is co-chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance, an industry-supported group that opposes more regulation. He thinks broadband adoption in the U.S. is going well considering broadband has only been available for 10 years.
Mr. MEHLMAN: Within a decade, we've seen faster broadband deployment than you saw for cell phones, then for cable TV. It's one of the great technology success stories in history.
ROSE: Great for business, but maybe not so great for consumers.
Mr. JOEL KELSEY (Analyst, Consumers Union): The broadband marketplace in America suffers from really two critical failures: high prices and low speeds.
ROSE: Joel Kelsey is an analyst at the nonprofit Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports. He says 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 Kelsey says it's bad public policy.
Mr. KELSEY: If you talk to industry, they look at it and think of broadband as a private commercial service akin to pay television or cable TV. And if you look at how the Internet has developed, a lot of folks out there believe it is an essential input into this nation's economy. It is an essential infrastructure question.
ROSE: In the last 10 years, broadband has become a crucial part of how we communicate, shop, work and even apply for jobs, and therefore, Kelsey says, it should be regulated like other technologies we consider essential, including electricity and telephone service.
But Bruce Mehlman at the Internet Innovation Alliance thinks we don't need more government intervention to make broadband faster and cheaper.
Mr. MEHLMAN: Well, we haven't yet, and that's in the first decade. And in the second decade, the marketplace is only going to be that much more competitive.
ROSE: FCC officials don't seem so sure. They say some basic regulations are necessary to protect consumers and spur competition. But the big Internet companies are pushing back with more numbers of their own: lobbying dollars.
For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.