< Broad Minded


Friday, December 18, 2009

BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. When Congress passed President Obama’s economic recovery package, seven billion dollars were set aside to help bridge what is often called the digital divide, as some put it at the time, a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage and a broadband connection in every home. This week, Vice-President Joe Biden announced where some of that money is going.

VICE-PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Today it’s nearly 200 million dollars in grants and loans we're going to announce, and when it’s all said and done we'll be awarding 7.2 billion dollars for access to broadband in areas like Dawsonville and all around the country.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But some say that money is just a drop in an Olympic-sized bucket, that America, like Finland, like South Korea, like Canada, Japan, France and many others should formulate an ambitious national broadband policy to tackle the issue. Well, in just a couple of months, the Federal Communications Commission, after much fact-finding and town hall meetings, will introduce that long-awaited plan. Ben Scott is policy director for Free Press, an organization that has lobbied for better broadband access in Washington, D.C.

BEN SCOTT: We've taken a path for broadband competition different than any other nation in the world.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: How far behind these other countries are we, really? Can you compare and contrast Canadian broadband policy with the American policy, and Canadian broadband access with American access?

BEN SCOTT: The main difference between the Canadian broadband market and ours is competition. We have for many years been stuck in what economists call a duopoly, two choices - the cable company and the phone company. There are laws in Canada, as there are in virtually every other developed nation, that require the local telephone companies to share their networks with competitors. So if you remember back in the dark ages when we were all using dial-up Internet, you could choose between NetZero or AOL or Bob’s ISP there in your town. And that was because in those days we had the same laws. You had lots of different companies competing for your business over the same wire into your house. But several years ago we decided to gut those laws; we took them off the books in 2005.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's start with the announcement by Biden this week, which attaches names and places to the abstract idea of a digital divide. Could you talk about a couple of the programs that are slated to get stimulus money and how they'll tackle the divide?

BEN SCOTT: Well, two major digital divides exist in this country. One is about geography and the other is about income. So let's take geography first. They've gone down to Northern Georgia, which, as you might imagine, is a pretty rural area, and they found a whole bunch of different small towns, lots of farming communities, that don't have high speed Internet access. So what they've done is they've given a grant of some 180 million dollars so that the Northern Georgia Network can build a 260-mile fiber optic ring, a loop of cable that’s in the ground and strung from telephone poles that will connect all of these little farming communities, one to another, so that all of the households, tens of thousands, can get access to the same kinds of high speed Internet that are available in big cities like Washington and New York.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about the income digital divide?

BEN SCOTT: Another really important grant they're making is up in Boston, the city with a great deal of economic inequality. So what this grant is intended to do is give money to schools and to libraries, community centers and public housing projects to put computing centers in all of these places, dozens of places scattered around the city, so that kids can come home after school and go the computing center if they don't have Internet access at home, and there they'll find the high-speed connection, and they'll find technology training if they don't know how to use computers yet.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, there are some people that, you will be surprised to know, still argue that high speed Internet, unlike, say, heat or electricity, just isn't a necessity in times of national economic hardship. You disagree with that. You say we've reached an indisputable tipping point.

BEN SCOTT: The tipping point was the Recovery Act. In that bill, and in the debate about it, they talked about broadband as a fundamental infrastructure, just like electricity or water or roads. And there is this debate: Does broadband really belong in that category and shouldn't we be treating it still as an entertainment service? And if you look back through the 20th century over the last 100 years of history, what you see is every time a new technology came along that later became a fundamental infrastructure that no one would disagree is necessary for universal access, there was this debate. Do people really need to have flush toilets in their house? I can make do with an outhouse. Do we really need to have electricity? Farmers in Iowa, they like their candles. Why would anyone want to have a telephone in their house? Then people can bother you in the evenings.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I kind of feel that way.


[LAUGHTER] Perhaps we should revisit that history.

[BROOKE LAUGHS] At each of these moments, and they're generational moments, we can see a dispute as people push and pull about whether or not something is going to become a piece of our essential infrastructure. I think indisputably we've moved into that category with Internet access.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'm just concerned about have I played devil’s advocate enough here. Is there any argument I can make against this? I can't come up with one.

BEN SCOTT: Well, the strong arguments against it are, you know, if you’re talking about an aggressive competition policy, you’re talking about tackling the cable and telecom industries at a time when corporate America has dominance over public policy. [LAUGHS] There’s a certain question of political viability to some of these policy changes that we would advocate. Second is, you know, there’s no money and we're in huge debt, and if we're talking about the national broadband infrastructure, boy, that’s going to be tens of billions of dollars over the course of the next decade. People could rightly be concerned that we need to exercise fiscal discipline, and that’s not a necessity. I think that’s incorrect and that ultimately investment in broadband yields so much back in terms of economic growth that it’s worth it ten times over, but that’s a debate we're going to have in the Congress and in Main Streets across the country.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ben, thank you so much.

BEN SCOTT: Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ben Scott is policy director for Free Press, a communications advocacy group in Washington, D.C.