Down to the Wire

BROADBAND NATION?

In the first three years of the Bush administration, the United States dropped from 4th to 13th place in global rankings of broadband Internet usage. Today, most U.S. homes can access only "basic" broadband, among the slowest, most expensive, and least reliable in the developed world, and the United States has fallen even further behind in mobile-phone-based Internet access. The lag is arguably the result of the Bush administration's failure to make a priority of developing these networks. In fact, the United States is the only industrialized state without an explicit national policy for promoting broadband.

It did not have to be this way. Until recently, the United States led the world in Internet development. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency conceived of and then funded the Internet. In the 1980s, the National Science Foundation partially underwrote the university and college networks -- and the high-speed lines supporting them -- that extended the Internet across the nation. After the World Wide Web and mouse-driven browsers were developed in the early 1990s, the Internet was ready to take off. President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore showed the way by promoting the Internet's commercialization, the National Infrastructure Initiative, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and remarkable e-commerce, e-government, and e-education programs. The private sector did the work, but the government offered a clear vision and strong leadership that created a competitive playing field for early broadband providers. Even though these policies had their share of detractors -- who claimed that excessive hype was used to sell wasteful projects and even blamed the Clinton administration for the dot-com bust -- they kept the United States in the forefront of Internet innovation and deployment through the 1990s.

Things changed when the Bush administration took over in 2001 and set new priorities for the country: tax cuts, missile defense, and, months later, the war on terrorism. In the administration's first three years, President George W. Bush mentioned broadband just twice and only in passing. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) showed little interest in opening home telephone lines to outside competitors to drive down broadband prices and increase demand.

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