WASHINGTON - A broad coalition of Internet business leaders, online gurus, community organizers and advocates across the political spectrum launched a campaign Tuesday with the lofty goal of universal high-speed Internet service.
Better broadband access and quality can be a boring and technical issue, fraught with bureaucratic complications, admitted the organizers for InternetforEveryone.org. But they also see it as crucial to the future of the U.S. economy, education and even the health of democracy.
At a news conference in New York, the group warned that the United States is falling behind European and Asian nations with Internet access that is more limited, more expensive and slower. U.S. users pay an average of $53 a month for high-speed service, compared with $32 in Germany and $33 in Britain, according to one international survey.
The campaign includes Vint Cerf, Internet "evangelist" for Google; Stanford University Professor Lawrence Lessig; Zipcar founder Robin Chase; venture capital leader Brad Burnham; and Van Jones, community organizer and president of the green-economy group Green for All, based in Oakland.
Groups backing the coalition range from the ACLU and the Progressive States Network to techRepublican.com. David All, a conservative online activist, said many rural voters who lean to the GOP don't have broadband, "so it's common sense to me why Republicans want to support the internet."
Organizers concede that while the presidential candidates have spoken in favor of greater high-speed access, the issue doesn't lend itself to stump speeches. Dozens of bills in Congress have languished that would provide subsidies and other investments to get Internet service providers to extend and improve coverage.
The coalition will hold forums around the country and try to build support for plans that improve access, choice and innovation.
'Basic as hot water'
Lessig and Chase said that better service will depend on public involvement and a recognition that high-speed Internet is as necessary as a utility.
"Maybe it's not as basic as water, but it's as basic as hot water," Chase said, adding that her innovative car-use business would not exist without the Internet.
Jonathan Adelstein, a Federal Communications Commission member, said the campaign must emphasize the benefits of broadband, such as health care data in rural areas or distance learning. The key, he said, is a national broadband policy that fosters more competition.
"We're falling behind in access, speed and price, Adelstein said, noting that large phone and cable companies dominate the market. He sees potential in wireless networks and a need for government subsidies for areas not served. A study by the California State Broadband Task Force in December found that about 1.4 million state residents, mainly in rural areas, did not have broadband service, and only about half of Californians have broadband at home. The group called for state bonds and tax breaks for providers to extend service.
A "digital divide" among Internet users could also leave lower-income and minorities behind, the coalition warned. According to the Census Bureau, 35 percent of households with annual incomes below $50,000 have broadband, while 76 percent of those with higher incomes are connected.
It's 'life and death'
High-speed Internet is becoming crucial to democracy, said Van Jones, and people are left out "when they don't have access to the discussion in the blogosphere" or have access to specific information in an emergency.
"In the California wildfires, those who had access to information at the drop of a hat could figure out if they were in danger and get out," Jones said. "It's a matter of life and death."
For more information on the broadband campaign: www.internetforeveryone.org.
© 2008 San Jose Mercury News