Should Broadband Shoot For the Moon, or Somewhere Closer?

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Here’s another thought about Google’s bid to string fiber to homes in select U.S. communities to provide 1-Gigabit-per-second connections (see Behind Google’s Broadband Strategy and Google’s Potemkin Broadband Villages).

While the search company is polishing up pipes with capacity that would be largely useless on the open Internet, the fact is that roughly 30% of American’s don’t even use broadband at all today because it’s too expensive, they don’t find it useful or it’s simply unavailable, according to a survey sponsored by the National Telecommunications & Information Administration of 54,000 households in October 2009.

So Google’s fiber-to-the-home plan is a little like offering to build a 100,000-seat football stadium in one town — while the folks down the road may not have enough equipment to field a team.

According to the NTIA survey, the most common reasons cited for not having broadband were that it wasn’t needed (38%) or was too expensive (26%). “Although life without high speed Internet service seems unimaginable for many Americans, for too many others, broadband is still unattainable,” the NTIA said in its report, “Digital Nation: 21st Century America’s Progress Toward Universal Broadband Internet Access.”

Shouldn’t the U.S.’s national agenda for broadband revolve around getting more affordable baseline broadband speeds to more Americans, and promoting usage of the Internet, rather than fixating on super-high speeds?

That’s what Ball State University’s Stuart Brotman argued in a viewpoint column in last week’s issue of Multichannel News (see Focus on Main Street First).

“Unfortunately, too much focus so far has been on increasing the speed of broadband in the U.S. so that our rankings in the world on this measure move closer to the top… For the average business and consumer, however, this focus on how fast broadband systems are in other countries seems to be a classic case of seeing the trees before discovering the forest,” Brotman wrote.

The U.S. shouldn’t have a “race to the moon” mentality on broadband geared toward speeds and feeds, in Brotman’s view. Instead, the national broadband plan should be focused on how technological capabilities and performance “actually improve the ways we work and live.”

Big numbers, however, are politically potent.

On Tuesday, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski planted a “race-to-the-moon” flag for broadband, saying the agency is shooting to have 100-Mbps Internet connections available to 100 million people within 10 years.

On the other hand, Genachowski said, the FCC’s goal is to provide “meaningful access” to broadband speeds of at least 2 Mbps for the other 200 million Americans and boost broadband adoption to 90% by 2020.

The Google guys have grabbed headlines but we’ll see if their 1-Gbps experiments do anything that demonstrably pushes the U.S. toward more ubiquitious, affordable broadband.

Then again, if you’re a cash-starved municipality, why wouldn’t you try to take the Googlers up on their offer to shower cash on your hamlet? The worst-case scenario is that you will get some dark fiber in the ground.

More than a dozen communities have already applied for Google’s “Think Big With a Gig” grants — including Seattle, even though officials in Microsoft’s hometown acknowledged it’s a bit of a long shot. Google has set a March 26 deadline for cities to apply to the FTTH project.

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