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The Brattleboro Reformer

Digital Dreams


Even though we are a primarily paper-and-ink product, we also recognize the growing importance of the Internet.

We've written often in this space about the future of Vermont's economy and how it is tied to increased high-speed broadband Internet access. However, it is becoming clear that the dream of universal access in Vermont, and other rural areas of the United States, is just that -- a dream.

The digital divide is alive and well. According to a recent analysis by the nonprofit media reform group Free Press, only 35 percent of U.S. homes with less than $50,000 annual income have a high-speed Internet connection.

That's because broadband access is in the hands of the cable and phone company duopoly, which controls access to 98 percent of the U.S. online market. It is why Americans pay more and get less than what is available in the rest of the developed world.

It should be a national embarrassment that the United States ranks 22nd in the world when it comes to affordable high-speed Internet, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It should be a national embarrassment that the United States has dropped from No. 4 in 2001 to No. 15 in 2007 for broadband penetration.

This imbalance is taking its toll economically. A Brookings Institution study found that nearly 300,000 new American jobs are created for every 1 percent increase in national broadband penetration.

We are falling behind because of a conscious choice made by policymakers on both the state and federal levels -- let the free market work its magic and everything will be fine. It is why the Douglas administration still thinks that $40 million will be enough to make Vermont an "e-state" by 2010.

But there is no free market in telecommunications. The phone and cable companies control the market and vigorously lobby lawmakers at every level of government to force through regulations that protect their market position, close off access to new technology and competitors and increase control over the content that travels over the Internet.

The countries that have moved ahead of the United States in telecommunications have also made a conscious choice -- to enact policies to encourage universal, open access.

For example, Japan in 2000 had the same problems as our nation -- an Internet industry controlled by a handful of gatekeepers that blocked innovation. Japan's response was to create a highly competitive private sector that did away with proprietary networks. Every phone company had to open their residential lines to wholesale access by other companies. The result was broadband access went from 2.2 percent in 2001 to more than 80 percent by 2004 and nearly every resident today.

While Vermonters struggle to get 1 megabit services, other nations are busy building 100 megabit networks that will transport voice, video and other data at speeds unimaginable to current American Internet users. And both Free Press and the OECD found that countries that have universal and open access policies, like Japan's, have nearly twice the levels of broadband penetration than those who do not.

From rural electrification to the construction of the Interstate Highway System, it has taken a combination of bold and creative political leadership and government money to create the public infrastructure needed for economic growth. The need for a fast, affordable and open Internet is clear, but neither Montpelier nor Washington has a plan or the leadership to do it.

While our international competitors have created this infrastructure, our political leaders seem content to leave America as a digital backwater. This is not acceptable. We need a national broadband policy that will erase the digital divide, foster innovation and create a telecommunication network that's second to none.

It will take a combination of business and government, with plenty of public imput, to accomplish this job, particularly in rural areas such as Vermont. The time to begin is now.

©2008 Brattleboro Reformer

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