By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 12, 2010; A10
More than half of Americans generally disagree with federal government efforts to expand broadband connections around the nation, saying those projects are not important, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Pew Center.
The findings come as the Obama administration has allocated $7.2 billion in stimulus money for broadband grants, saying fast access to the Internet is essential to encourage innovation and expand the economy. The Federal Communications Commission and some members of Congress have also pushed to overhaul a $8 billion federal subsidy program used to bring phone lines to rural areas so that it will subsidize broadband, as well.
"As broadband technologies have been adopted in the majority of American homes, a debate has arisen about the role of government in stepping in to ensure availability to high-speed Internet to access for all Americans," said Aaron Smith, a senior research specialist at the Pew Centers' Internet & American Life Project and author of the report. "The majority think not, and the surprise is that non-users are the least inclined to think government has a role."
The center said 53 percent of those surveyed felt that the government's programs for broadband access should not be attempted or were "not too important" a priority, and those who felt most strongly were older than 50 and skeptical that they would benefit from the Internet.
Another 41 percent, though, said federal involvement was an important or top priority.
The center found that two-thirds of Americans had high-speed access to the Web at home this year, a figure that hasn't changed much since 2009. A separate survey by Leichtman Research showed that in the last quarter, growth in broadband subscribers grew at its slowest pace in nine years.
But one group that experienced a surge in broadband adoption was African Americans, with 56 percent saying they have broadband access at home compared with 46 percent in 2009, Pew reported.
Smith said the economic recession contributed to the slowdown in rates of adoption. Economists continue to debate the immediate value of expensive projects to bring fiber lines across the great expanses of the country. Even when Internet lines are brought to homes, some consumers have resisted getting service because they don't understand the value of the technology, aren't educated on how to use it, or find it too expensive, according to the survey.
"Let's face it, when the average family of four is sitting around the dinner table, to the extent they talk about U.S. politics, broadband is not on the list of topics," said Adam Thierer, president of the free markets think tank Progress & Freedom Foundation.
Thierer distrusts the federal program to bring phone service to rural areas, saying big corporations milk the $5 billion annual fund that is drawn from a line-item charge on all monthly long-distance bills. Extending the same kind of federal aid to broadband providers is not likely to be any more efficient, he said.
"My skepticism comes from a poor government track record on tech funding," Thierer said.
Federal officials said the report does not undercut the administration's effort, but instead shows the need for educating people about the importance of broadband technology for access to information on healthcare, education and jobs.
"Today's Pew report confirms what the FCC found in our broadband survey last year: There are still too many barriers to broadband adoption in America," said FCC spokeswoman Jen Howard. "That's why the National Broadband Plan lays out a strategy for improving digital literacy and ensuring that all Americans can take full advantage of the benefits of broadband."
The FCC estimates that if all homes had broadband, corporations would save $500 billion over 15 years from the use of electronic health records instead of paper. It also projects that $1.2 billion could be saved by video consultations between doctors and patients in cases where office visits are not practical.
Joel Kelsey, a political adviser for the public interest group Free Press, has advocated for the government to treat broadband like a utility such as electricity.
He said it may seem like a luxury to some today, but will soon be a necessity as schools, police, hospitals and businesses rely on fast connections to operate.
"Economic growth won't come just from tax breaks and moving jobs overseas. . . . New skills and new work comes from how you participate online," he said.