Encouraging broadband adoption: Should the government be involved?

A. Michael NollIs it the role of government to encourage Americans to have broadband access to the Internet? I think not.

The broadband adoption rate in the US is about 65 percent, although about 92 percent could have access if they wanted it. This level of adoption disturbs the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration). The NTIA believes that a lack of broadband Internet access cuts off Americans "from many educational and employment opportunities" and prevents them from competing "in the 21st century economy." [NTIA Media Release, November 8, 2010] But these claims of distress are not that clear to me.

Some of my friends do not have Internet access. One has two computers but refuses access because of concerns about privacy and security. A few others do not even own a computer--and see no real need to have one. Others visit the library if they need Internet access. Far be it for me--or the government--to tell them (or encourage them) that they should, or must, use the Internet. Government and broadband accessHowever, they will soon have problems since some government agencies are encouraging Internet access--such as the IRS, which will no longer mail paper forms and will instead promote Internet usage.

It might be appropriate for government to ensure that Americans have the opportunity for broadband Internet access--but it is not, in my opinion, the role of government to encourage or promote such access on Americans. This is just another example of good old-fashioned technology push, which has been seen before.

Technology push (or promotion) by government is usually misguided and rarely ever results in any long-term benefits. Government traditionally makes bad bets on technology--perhaps because government responds mostly to political considerations or simply because many government officials are technologically illiterate. For example, as a result of the conversion of over-the-air broadcast television to digital, I no longer can receive NBC.

If government wants to really do something to promote Internet usage, then something should be done to eliminate all the spam and fraud that is disseminated on the Internet--frequently from foreign servers. Given all the spam--currently about 3/4 of my e-mails are spam--and the various security issues (such as spoofing of legitimate sites) along with the opportunities for invasions of privacy, perhaps one is indeed better off avoiding the Internet altogether!

But if someone wants broadband access and cannot get it because of government regulations, then government does have a role in changing these regulations to promote access. Most Americans should have the opportunity to obtain broadband Internet access. But there will be areas of the country where it is too costly to provide access--and here there might be a role for government to assist, such as what was done for rural electrification.

A. MICHAEL NOLL is a regular FierceTelecom columnist who writes frequently about telecommunication technology and business. He is currently retired and now spends his time exploring telecommunications issues and their impact.