A year ago today, on April 26, 2004, U.S. President George Bush called for broadband to all Americans by the year 2007 -- a noble goal that we are clearly struggling to meet. He said that policies should “bring broadband to every corner of our country by the year 2007 with competition shortly thereafter.” When he gave that speech one year ago today, the US was ranked 13th in the world in broadband per 100 inhabitants. Today, in a report from the ITU (International Telecommunications Union -- www.itu.int) the new rankings came out. We are now ranked 16th in the world. The ITU website was having problems today, but you should be able to access their report in time here. You can read a brief news summary of the report here.
So, what are we to make of our new ranking? In the days to come, it will be said that we are much more populous and geographically diverse than those countries that are ranked ahead of us. To this, I would say that we were just as populous (nearly so) and geographically diverse five years ago when these rankings started coming out and we were ranked 4th in the world. The fact of the matter is that we STILL don’t have a plan. Competition in many markets is still sparse, so prices for broadband are high. Cable and telephone companies are investing in infrastructure (generally) where they can make money, but because there is no incentive for them to buildout (i.e. somethat that a national broadband plan might provide) they make do with what they have.
One way to help us not fall further in the rankings in 2007 (the so-stated goal for broadband to EVERYONE!! in the US) is to get some of that yummy broadcaster spectrum back…at some point…soon. The transition to digital television (DTV) started nearly a decade ago and during that time broadcasters were given an additional channel of spectrum to broadcast a digital channel -- no small feat in terms of investment as well as technology. The idea was for them to simulcast an analog AND digital channel during the transition period and then give back the analog channel after the transition reached a date certain or a certain digital penetration rate was reached (let's not discuss the fact that the majority of people get their television via cable and satellite -- there are still a great deal of people who rely on free, over-the-air television).
So, as that date certain approaches, broadcasters say that the DTV penetration rate is not where it should be and that consumers should be given more time to transition to DTV so that they won't lose their analog television signals. They have a good argument, but in order for the U.S. to be globally competitive and for citizens, all citizens, to have access to a robust choice of broadband, we need to get that analog spectrum back from the broadcasters in a timely manner. There is growing support for this approach in the halls of the U.S. Congress and an announcement will be made tomorrow by a number of companies and associations along the lines of getting a date certain for the analog give-back. (NOTE TO READERS: I used to work for the National Association of Broadcasters so I have been on both sides of this current discussion.)
So, in sum, we’re #16 in the world in broadband penetration. We still don’t have a national broadband plan to address our continual fall in the rankings. Broadcasters have spectrum that will help us raise our rankings. We need a date certain for that spectrum to be given back to the American people, so we can get back on the world broadband wagon.