Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Expanding Access: With the United States Lagging Behind Other Industrialized Nations in Broadband Internet Service, One Public-Minded Firm Proposes a Radical Plan

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Expanding Access: With the United States Lagging Behind Other Industrialized Nations in Broadband Internet Service, One Public-Minded Firm Proposes a Radical Plan

Article excerpt

There's no question that the United States lags behind most industrialized nations in consumer access to broadband Internet service. For many policy makers and activists, this shortfall marks the latest phase in the struggle to overcome the digital divide. As telephone and cable companies dominate the national broadband market, many consumer advocates and digital divide activists contend that they've created an industry that is too geographically restricted and expensive for low-income Americans.

"We have lagged behind in transforming to a broadband society" says U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii.

"Many consumers have no high-speed access to the Internet, and those who do often must choose from limited options. While alternative broadband platforms may be on the horizon, telephone and cable companies currently control 98 percent of the national broadband market," Inouye wrote last month in The Hill, an independent Washington, D.C., political newspaper.

To remedy this lack of broadband affordability and availability, one start-up firm--with considerable backing from Silicon Valley companies--has proposed a radical plan to build a nationwide wireless system that would provide essentially free broadband access. Last May, M2Z Networks Inc. asked the Federal Communications Commission to grant it national rights to a little-used slice of the broadband spectrum. Gaining control of the requested spectrum band would enable M2Z to build a nationwide system that provides wireless Internet access to anyone whose computer is equipped with an access card or access chip.

"We want to provide broadband access to those who the market hasn't served well. It's a civil rights issue as we see it," says John Muleta, the company's president.

Muleta and M2Z chairman Milo Medin are long-time veterans of the telecommunications industry. Formerly the head of the FCC's wireless bureau, the multi-talented Muleta holds a bachelor's degree in engineering and a JD/MBA. Medin, who is based in Menlo Park, Calif., founded the @Home broadband company.

M2Z's proposal to control nationwide access of the 2155 to 2175 MHz range of the broadband spectrum has shaken up conventional thinking about how universal broadband service can be brought to consumers. As cellular phones and other technologies have been introduced in recent decades, the FCC has auctioned off spectrum space by geographical markets. The space goes to the highest bidder, bringing billions of dollars of revenue to the government. But if M2Z's proposal is approved, the FCC would forgo auction revenues. The company, however, has offered to pay the U.S. Treasury 5 percent of its revenues from a premium service it plans along with the free service. According to company officials, the free service will be entirely supported by advertising revenue.

While some nonprofit public interest organizations have applauded M2Z's plans, it has also generated plenty of skepticism and opposition.

Among its opponents are conservative free market advocates, the wireless industry and even left-of-center public interest skeptics. Though the FCC has not yet indicated when its five commissioners will issue a ruling on the proposal, the commission launched a public comment period on Jan. 31.

Broadband By 2007

In March 2004, President George W. Bush called for the national adoption of universal, affordable broadband access by 2007. "It's important that we stay on the cutting edge of technological change, and one way to do so is to have a bold plan for broadband," the president told a gathering at the Expo New Mexico in Albuquerque.

"There's roughly 114 million adults in the U.S. who are either unconnected to the Internet or are using slow speed dial-up connections to access the Internet," Muleta says.

According to the Benton Foundation, a left-leaning public interest organization, the United States has fallen to 15th among industrialized nations in deploying broadband services. …

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