For the second time in a month, President Bush has tossed his support behind nationwide high-speed-data service, viewing it as a technology destined to propel economic growth with corresponding benefits for health care and distance learning.
Once a marketing slogan, broadband today is a hot topic during a presidential-election year as consumer and business demand builds for instantaneous access to Web pages, video clips, music files, medical records and teleconferencing services.
In Minneapolis to address a community-college association, Bush called for nationwide broadband access by 2007 and urged the Federal Communications Commission to maintain its deregulatory agenda, which is intended to spur investment and competition.
"We're going to continue to support [FCC chairman] Michael Powell, under his leadership, his decision to eliminate burdensome regulations on new broadband networks' availability to homes. In other words, clearing out the underbrush of regulation, and we'll get the spread of broadband technology, and America will be better for it," Bush said.
About 25 million U.S. households subscribe to high-speed-data providers, with cable operators holding about a 2-1 advantage over the Baby Bell phone companies.
Gene Kimmelman, public-policy director for the Consumers Union, applauded Bush's goal but complained that it won't be met if cable-modem subscribers have to pay more to use an Internet-service provider not offered by the cable company.
"This policy of allowing cable operators to force consumers to buy their services is absolutely contrary to the president's goal of offering consumers affordable Internet access," Kimmelman said in a prepared statement.
Cable operators have invested $85 billion on digital upgrades since 1996. The industry maintained that government-mandated facilities-sharing at regulated rates would reduce broadband investment and harm consumers who want high-speed-data services.
While broadband availability is quite high in the United States, Bush lamented that the level of broadband adoption ranked the U.S. 10th among industrial nations.
"Tenth is about 10 spots too low, as far as I'm concerned," he said.
Insofar as improving broadband penetration, Bush did not voice support for government subsidies, which Japan and South Korea have used to stimulate broadband.
"A proper role for the government is to clear regulatory hurdles so that those who are going to make investments do so. Broadband is going to spread because it's going to make sense for private-sector companies to spread it so long as the regulatory burden is reduced -- in other words, so long as policy at the government level encourages people to invest, not discourages investment," Bush said.
A nation wired for broadband would turn every home into a potential distant-learning classroom, Bush said.
"The expansion of broadband technology will mean education literally will head into the living rooms of students. That will even make the system more flexible and more available and more affordable," he added.
Rapid transmission of medical records and X-rays would lead to faster action by doctors and prevent unnecessary deaths, Bush said.
"The ability to send an X-ray image in seven seconds and have a response back in 10 minutes with a preliminary analysis oftentimes will save lives," he added.
In parts of the country that are too expensive to wire, Bush said wireless providers would fill in the gaps, but wireless companies need spectrum, some of which is in the hands of TV stations. The FCC would like to reclaim that spectrum.
"We need to open up more federally controlled wireless spectrum to auction in free public use, to make wireless broadband more accessible, reliable and affordable," Bush said.