Making Broadband Access Available and Affordable for all in the US‎- Interview with SCU Law Professor Allen Hammond

Professor Allen Hammond, Director of the Broadband Institute of California, offers a perspective on the importance of broadband access and a prescription for making it available and affordable for all U.S. residents.  Recommendations for Digital Inclusion, U.S. Broadband Policy, a national wireless network, funding and measurement tools are also included in this interview. 

Most of us take broadband Internet access for granted.  We watch videos, play music, multi-media games, upload and download large files without even thinking about it.  But not everyone in the U.S. is that fortunate.  A large number of the U.S. population lives in rural or “underserved” areas where broadband access is not available.  Many low income, inner city residents can’t afford cable or DSL based broadband access.   And municipal wireless networks that were promised to provide such access for cities and counties have been delayed or cancelled. 

Those without affordable access to broadband are at a competitive disadvantage; they are at risk of being marginalized and left behind, as more and more mandatory services migrate to the broadband Internet.  Today, most skilled jobs require PC and web based interfacing skills, which are more likely to be learned by those that have broadband Internet access.  Government services (such as Unemployment and Disability claims), education and training (including webinars), health care, travel information, and banking are offered on-line and have become pervasive on the web.  But without broadband access, these services are not conveniently or easily available.  What if you’re bank branch office has been recently closed and you’re told to do most of your banking on-line?  What if you’re applying for a job that requires web surfing, quick access to information, uploading or downloading .ppt or zip files from web sites?  Not good if you don’t have broadband Internet access or related skills.  Those that don’t will be left behind. 

Professor Hammond firmly believes that “Broadband access is a civil rights issue.”  It should not matter if one lives in a sparsely populated or rural area, an inner city, or a suburb.  Rich or poor shouldn’t matter either.  Broadband access should be made available to all that want it at affordable rates.

What’s Digital Inclusion and Why Is It Important?

The Wired for Wireless? Summary Report1 uses the term “Digital Inclusion” to denote the ability of everyone to have access to broadband and the related information technology.  Specifically it states:  “Digital Inclusion means that everyone — regardless of who they are or where they live — can participate in and take advantage of the economic, educational, health, and civic opportunities afforded by broadband and related information technology. 

More than just access to the Internet, Digital Inclusion means that all stakeholders are engaged in the planning and implementation of technology systems; that all potential users can access the technology and know how to use it; and that with these technologies come more services, increased information, and greater community access. As digital technology is increasingly used for educational, employment, health, commercial, and informational purposes, Digital Inclusion is critical for full engagement, participation, and opportunity in the social, economic, and civic life of society.” 

The report found that “wireless networks are effectively supporting government operations and services. Wireless technology is being used for a large range of government tasks: traffic light control, meter reading, data transport from regional offices to headquarters, video surveillance, communication between emergency vehicles, and much more. These projects have proven successful when jurisdictions commit funding toward the deployment and maintenance of the network.   Project research indicates that many local governments in California pursued or are pursuing a wireless network in order to bring broadband access to underserved communities. In most of these cases, the wireless networks were intended to enhance or fill in gaps left by existing deployment.”  However, the deployment of most of those CA municipal wireless networks, e.g. Wireless Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Fresno, etc have gone into hibernation status or they’re just plain dead.

U.S. Government Broadband Stimulus and Plan

The U.S. is one of the few developed countries that does not have a national broadband plan and up till this year, has done little to accelerate or drive broadband deployment.  The federal government has taken the position that broadband Internet is the job of the private sector.  This is in sharp contrast to the public sector build out of roads, highways and bridges.   

On February 17th, 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act) became law.  This was the government’s first step to making broadband more available in the U.S.  In particular, the Act allocated $7.2 billion in grant and loan funds for broadband build-outs.   

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