One Third Of Americans Lack High-Speed Internet Access

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A Federal Communications Commission report on Tuesday revealed that more than 90 million Americans, a third of the population, lack access to high-speed internet service. The report comes amid increasingly heated rhetoric by combatants in the war over broadband policy, as the FCC plans to present its national broadband recommendations to Congress on March 17.The report, "Broadband Adoption and Use in America," found that 80 million adults and 13 million children lack access to high-speed internet service. Of these "non-adopters," 36% said the cost of broadband service and equipment keeps them from subscribing. Americans pay an average of $41 per month for high-speed internet service.

Another 22% of those without broadband said they were uncomfortable with the internet or don't know how to use it, and 19% said the internet isn't relevant to their lives. And 40% of "low-income" citizens, defined as those with annual household incomes at $20,000 or below, have broadband, compared with 91% of those whose annual household income tops $75,000.

The FCC conducted the poll of 5,000 U.S. adults last fall.

Staking Out Turf

"In the 21st century, a digital divide is an opportunity divide," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement. "To bolster American competitiveness abroad and create the jobs of the future here at home, we need to make sure that all Americans have the skills and means to fully participate in the digital economy."

Weeks ahead of the FCC's address in Congress on the "digital divide," interest groups are already piling on. Washington-based advocacy group Public Knowledge argues that the U.S. should ensure more robust broadband competition.

"It is no surprise to find that high-speed Internet access is too expensive, and that the high price is keeping people from going online," said Public Knowledge's co-founder, Gigi Sohn, in a statement. "The best cure for high prices is vigorous competition. The FCC should make certain that it includes as part of its National Broadband Plan provisions to create the competition that will bring down prices and produce better services for all Americans."

The FCC's broadband report comes against the backdrop of a long-raging battle over network neutrality: the idea that internet service providers should not discriminate against web content in favor of their own offerings.

Public interest groups and internet companies argue that the web's openness is repsonsible for the internet revolution that spawned Google, YouTube, and Twitter. But broadband companies like Comcast (CMCSA), AT&T (T), and Verizon (VZ) argue that because they own "the pipes" -- and, indeed, have spent a fortune building them -- they should control them.

Rhetoric Heats Up

The FCC and Comcast are awaiting a court ruling on whether the agency can enforce its network-neutrality principles. The cable giant argues that only legislation, not regulation, can mandate such rules.

If the FCC loses that case, it might move to try to reclassify internet access under Title II jurisdiction, which would subject broadband companies to common carrier rules, much as the telephone industry is regulated. This would give the FCC greater authority to regulate the industry.

The major internet companies (except Comcast) this week sent a letter to the FCC, arguing that such a move "would be a profound mistake with harmful and lasting consequences for consumers and our economy...."The proposed regulatory about-face would be untenable as a legal matter, and, at a minimum, would plunge the industry into years of litigation and regulatory chaos."

Public Knowledge lambasted the broadband companies in response. "This is a transparent attempt to bully the FCC," Sohn said in the group's statement. "The industry wants to have a Federal Communications Commission that has no power to safeguard consumer privacy, to promote deployment and adoption of high-speed Internet access, to require transparency and truth in billing and any number of consumer protections....The telecommunications industry has now shown that it cares nothing for consumers."
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