California Official Wants More Broadband User Info

Published December 1, 2008

Broadband providers should share more market-penetration information with government officials so states can better plan ways to bring high-speed Internet to under-served communities, said a California regulator at a tech conference in Washington, DC.

California Public Utilities Commissioner Rachelle Chong said government agencies may find private companies are reluctant to reveal sensitive market-penetration data, but the information is vital to promote broadband expansion, she argues.

At the Broadband Census for America Conference in September, Chong said she was able to procure the information from California’s two major broadband providers after convincing them high-speed Internet access is becoming a necessary and basic piece of public infrastructure. She noted California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) helped pressure the industry to cooperate.

Concerned About Access

“He understood that if you don’t have broadband, you’re not going to have state-of-the-art economic development,” Chong said, according to published reports of the conference. “If you let it wane, citizens are disadvantaged when they get their education. We want to make sure that no child is left behind because of the digital divide.”

Dr. William Lehr, a research associate at the MIT Communications Futures Program, agrees states should regard broadband as “basic infrastructure” like roads and schools, and that government agencies ought to start evaluating where broadband availability is weakest.

Vouchers Suggested

Larry Landis, a member of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, found Chong’s presentation “highly useful” and hopes it is the first step toward states thinking about how best to ensure the rapid expansion of broadband access.

Braden Cox, policy counsel for the Association for Competitive Technology in Washington, DC, warns policymakers not to come away from the conference thinking government agencies should take a more-active role in providing broadband to consumers.

“State and local governments can learn a lot from the private sector to help provide vital services,” Cox said. “However, governments should be sure not to strong-arm heavily regulated industries into doing their bidding for them.

“The so-called digital divide is increasingly less about access and more about uptake,” Cox said. “If governments feel compelled to act, they should stay out of the business of broadband networks and instead identify the neediest citizens for ‘broadband vouchers’ that could help subsidize home Internet subscriptions.”

Tabassum Rahmani ([email protected]) writes from Dublin, California.