The Wall Street Journal offers a timely and sobering account of the painfully inadequate broadband many of our schools rely on. This is hardly surprising, since the United States lags the rest of the world in the deployment of speedy and affordable broadband. Yep, the nation that invented the Internet and once led the world in connectivity is now 15th.
The report focuses on debate in Washington over how to reform the "E-Rate" program that wires schools and libraries. President Obama announced last year that he wants to do just that, under a new initiative he administration is calling "ConnectED." Updating E-Rate to deliver the best connectivity possible to our students is a great idea, and one we support whole-heartedly. With enough connectivity, e-learning offers tremendous promise. For example, low-income schools that lack fully-appointed science labs could stream guest lectures from a fully-furnished state university. Students in rural schools that lack, say, a Chinese instructor could use video conferencing to learn from native speakers.
But this report on E-Rate overlooks one key fact: schools, particularly in rural America, have crummy broadband connectivity because of a lack of competition in the broadband market.
American broadband is shockingly uncompetitive. Most Americans have the choice of two wired broadband providers - the local cable provider and the local DSL provider. For technological reasons, DSL is becoming steadily less competitive in terms of speed and price, so very soon cable will be the only viable option to stream in most communities. (Susan Crawford is the best resource on this problem. Read about her work here.)
Why the looming cable monopoly?
First the Big Cable convinced the FCC to eliminate competition requirements, and then the forces of ALEC set to work across the country eliminating the last best hope for consumer choice: municipal broadband. Now 19 states have restricted or denied communities the right to provide essential broadband services.
Put simply, with more choice in the broadband marketplace everyone would benefit. Schools, libraries, small businesses, and consumers would pay less, and get more.
So yes, our leadership in Washington should push forward with ConnectED, but that alone is not going to dig us out of the broadband hole we are in. The FCC needs to revisit past mistakes and Congress should pass legislation to give us the competitive broadband marketplace we need.
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Office: Common Cause National
Issues: Media and Democracy