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Whatever happened to Obama’s goal of universal broadband access?

Does anyone remember when the Obama administration promised to bring "true broadband [to] every community in America"? The Republican Party definitely does, and its 2012 platform criticizes the president for not making any progress on this pledge:

Well, at least we have a connection at this tech convention. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

"The current Administration has been frozen in the past.... It inherited from the previous Republican Administration 95 percent coverage of the nation with broadband. It will leave office with no progress toward the goal of universal coverage—after spending $7.2 billion more. That hurts rural America, where farmers, ranchers, and small business manufacturers need connectivity to expand their customer base and operate in real time with the world’s producers.

So whatever happened to the Obama administration's plan to expand broadband access, anyway? In one sense, the Republican critics are right. Universal broadband is still far from a reality. According to the Federal Communications Commission's annual broadband report, released in August, there are still 19 million Americans who lack access to wired broadband. Only about 94 percent of households have broadband access. Obama hasn't achieved his goal.

That said, there are a few key caveats to add. Back in 2008, the FCC adopted stricter standards for what actually counts as acceptable broadband access—this now requires a connection speed of at least 768 kilobits per second. And last year, the FCC notes, 7.4 million additional Americans gained this level of access (see the red box below). So the infrastructure has been getting better. It's just that the bar for high-quality Internet access has also gone up:

Now, focusing solely on raw coverage numbers can also often obscure a number of things. "Much of that coverage is not robust, and some of it is very expensive," explains Michael Calabrese, a senior fellow with New America's Open Technology Institute. So it's possible for broadband access to get better even if that 94 percent coverage number doesn't budge. And it's worth asking if that's happened at all.

A good chunk of the $7.2 billion in broadband stimulus funds was supposed to help with upgrading access in just this fashion. About $4.7 billion of those funds went to the Commerce Department's Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), which gets tracked in quarterly reports to Congress. The most recent update can be found here (pdf). The report notes that the program has deployed 45,000 "new or upgraded" network miles since 2010 and either built or improved service to 2,200 "anchor institutions," which include schools, libraries and hospitals. To take one example, the Northwest Open Access Network in Washington, partly funded by the stimulus, is supposed to lower the cost of broadband to some 380,000 homes once completed.

What's more, there's a key difference between broadband access and broadband adoption. At the moment, 94 percent of Americans technically have access to some sort of broadband infrastructure. But only 68 percent of Americans actually use it. The BTOP program spent a portion of its money to boost the adoption rate—the quarterly report notes that training programs have helped 259,446 households and 1,276 businesses sign up. So there's been small progress on that front.

The remainder of the stimulus money, meanwhile, went to the Agriculture Department to focus on underserved rural areas. These programs are far more difficult to evaluate—and they were heavily criticized by the agency's inspector general back in 2009. (According to Michael Grunwald's new book, The New New Deal, the Obama administration initially wanted to steer all of the stimulus money to the Commerce Department. But Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) threatened to oppose the bill if Agriculture didn't get a large chunk of the broadband stimulus funds. In the end, Clyburn got his way.)

Aside from the stimulus, the Obama administration has taken a number of additional steps on broadband, from trying to reform the Universal Service Fund to unveiling a plan to auction off wireless spectrum owned by the government. Adam Offitzer of Polifact has a helpful rundown of these actions here, and notes that while Obama has delivered on some of his reforms, the country is still far off from "true broadband in every community in America." So Politifact gives the administration a mixed grade on its full set of broadband promises. Not failed, but not completely fulfilled, either.

The GOP platform, for its part, promises to go further by "encouraging public-private partnerships to provide predictable support for connecting rural areas so that every American can fully participate in the global economy." Yet not all broadband experts are sure that universal access is a realistic goal anytime soon, regardless of the method used.

"Getting to 100 percent is going to be a very difficult long-term goal, given the size of the U.S. landmass and the huge expense to reach those final couple of percentage points," says John Horrigan of the Joint Center Media and Technology Institute. The same goes for increasing the adoption rate. "We're not going to close that gap in five years." Anyone hoping for universal broadband access in the near future might end up disappointed. But shorter-term upgrades are possible—and, indeed, appear to be happening.



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Ezra Klein · August 29, 2012

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