|I think this is a unique experiment in transparent government and an opportunity to demonstrate the democratic power of the internet. If we're successful, it could become a model for the way legislation on health care, foreign policy, and education is drafted in the future.
There are several reasons why I chose America's broadband strategy as the ideal issue for this process. First of all, those who are active on the issue of broadband policy and have the knowledge and experience to help me draft this legislation tend to leverage the power of the internet for advocacy efforts. This is the perfect forum for this issue.
I think this is one of the most important public policy questions we face today. Over the last year, I've held regional broadband summits in Southern and Central Illinois that assembled various leaders in health, education, government, and business to discuss the importance of broadband access. At each summit I heard the following: This issue is not about luxury, but about having the tools necessity to compete in the 21st Century.
Businesses, hospitals, schools, and even communities, regions, and states are better able to compete if they have access to or can offer broadband service. A 2006 report by the Department of Commerce shows that broadband access enhances the economic growth and performance of communities. Broadband communities significantly outgrow non-broadband communities in terms of employment, the number of businesses overall, businesses in IT-intensive sectors, and property values. Various other case studies comparing similar communities with and without broadband access confirm these results.
This makes sense. The economic viability of communities is often directly related to that community's public infrastructure. Good schools, adequate roads and transportation, access to affordable health care, and quality of life factors play a role in whether communities will attract new businesses and residents. Like traditional utility services, broadband is a key part of this infrastructure.
However, I'm concerned that the United States is falling behind our peers in terms of our per capita access to high speed internet access. One report showed the United States falling from 4th in the world in broadband access per capita in 2001 to 12th in the world in 2006. The International Telecommunications Union listed the U.S. as 16th worldwide in terms of its broadband penetration rate, behind South Korea, Belgium, Israel, and Switzerland, among others. We can do better.
In today's highly competitive international markets, our children, businesses, and communities are competing with their peers around the world for jobs, market share, and business attraction. We are falling behind in an area in which we should have a natural advantage. Lagging behind in broadband means our children are less able to access the full set of tools and resources available online and communities are less able to attract businesses or high quality employees considering relocating.
It is especially troubling that many families living in rural parts of the United States still do not have access to high speed internet service. The digital divide is real. Rural broadband deployment continues to lag behind urban deployment, even as overall broadband usage has grown significantly in our nation.
According to a 2004 report issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce, only about 25% of rural households that use the Internet have broadband access, compared to over 40% of the same households in urban areas. The USDA's 2005 report found that farm households have home access to broadband at almost half the level of all U.S. households. The Pew Internet and American Life Project found similar results; only 18% of rural adults reported a home broadband connection, compared to 31% of urban adults.
All these studies point to a consistent conclusion: Americans living in urban areas are almost twice as likely to have home broadband access as do their rural counterparts. And the main obstacle for rural broadband adoption is the availability and price of broadband service in these regions. Even when broadband service is available in rural areas, frequently this service is considerably more expensive and of lower quality than broadband offered in more populated areas.
We need to make broadband access a national priority. Many of you probably recall that in early 2004, President Bush called for universal and affordable access to broadband by the year 2007. Unfortunately, that goal is not even close to being met.
I think this issue is important enough to demand that we have a concerted federal strategy. Among the questions we'll discuss over the next four nights are what are the right mix of incentives to build broadband infrastructure, how should we manage public resources like spectrum, what is the role of community and regional broadband projects, do we need a Federal Highway System or Rural Electrification Act for broadband, and what policies are necessary to ensure open debate and innovation.
My core principles at the start are that:
- Broadband must be universal and affordable;
- We must preserve an online environment for innovation; and
- We must ensure that this technology allows more voices to be heard.
Over the next few nights, I've enlisted a number of experts in their field to get discussion started but I'm most interested in hearing from you.
As I said at the outset, this is an experiment. Drafting a bill like this has never been done before. Some people think it won't work. I have a feeling we'll prove them wrong.