Increasing Broadband Access
As the Internet becomes more prevalent in American society and as our industry and political leaders debate the best way to enable all Americans to take advantage of speedier and more reliable Internet service, the term broadband has worked its way into the technologist's vernacular. Broadband is currently defined as the technical capacity to transfer data at a rate of 200 kilobits per second in one direction. Kilobits aside, broadband allows Internet users full-time access to the Internet and the ability to run quality, high-speed applications (such as video)--services that the current "dial-up" Internet cannot match.
As with most products in a market economy, the driving factor behind the deployment of broadband is financial profit. Broadband providers tend to offer their services where a suitable infrastructure and customer concentration already exist. As a result, universities and colleges without an existing infrastructure and those located in remote, rural areas are finding it a challenge to obtain affordable broadband connections for faculty and students.
Expanding broadband deployment will improve the capacity of higher education institutions to provide quality education for learners anywhere, anytime. Broadband enables much more effective distance education by allowing students and teachers located in different parts of the world to communicate and interact on a "real time" basis, as though they were in the same physical classroom, and by enabling students to select course offerings from institutions outside their physical proximity. Access to broadband technology will provide remote students, like students residing on campus, with the ability to utilize data-intensive information resources.
Is Government Intervention Necessary for Increased Broadband Access?
Fearing a lack of return on investment, incumbent carriers such as the regional Bell operating companies have been slow in rolling out broadband services to rural areas, and the Federal Communications Commission has been reluctant to intervene. This past July the FCC credited its laissez-faire policy decisions over the past thirty years with "creating a deregulatory environment in which the Internet could flourish."1 This followed an FCC report, released last January, which concluded that "broadband is being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion" and which added that the FCC saw no reason for agency activism.
Many members of Congress do not appear to share the FCC's optimism. A growing number believe that the telecommunications industry has been hampered in the rollout of broadband by "burdensome" regulations imposed in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Others feel that certain segments of the industry need positive regulatory incentives to spur broadband deployment. In contrast to the FCC's hands-off approach, at the time of this writing four activist broadband bills are pending in Congress, three of them offered by congressional members representing constituents living in rural areas. Approaches in these bills include the following:
- Requiring incumbent local exchange carriers to provide a business plan to the proper state commission explaining how they will provide broadband services to all local exchange areas
- Eliminating the authority of the FCC to determine pricing or technical standards
- For data communications, removing the inter-local access and transport area (inter-LATA) restrictions imposed on incumbent telecom carriers by the Telecom Act of 1996
Although it is unlikely that any of the bills will reach their respective floors this session, Congress has demonstrated its impatience with the Telecom Act and with the slow deployment of broadband. This promises to remain a hot issue for some time to come.
Approaches of the Higher Education Community
The higher education community has differed in its approaches to providing high-speed Internet connectivity. Some institutions are partnering with local broadband providers to secure discounts for broadband services and are even sharing their access with the surrounding community. The University of Florida at Gainesville, for example, is partnering with a local provider to create a program whereby off-campus students and anyone else in the Gainesville area can obtain high-speed Internet access via cable modems.
Other states have taken a direct approach and have funded the development of state networks whose mission often includes reaching remote or rural educational institutions and communities. For example, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority established a partnership with the University of Massachusetts to extend connectivity by expanding the Internet backbone beyond the university campus via regional consortiums.
Many of these state-oriented networks were initially funded through the National Science Foundation's Connections program. The Arkansas ARKnet began with initial NSF funding in 1991, with twenty-one institutions participating. Eight years later, ARKnet's membership now includes all of the state's universities, colleges, and community colleges. Working with two other state networks--the Arkansas Department of Information Systems and the Arkansas Public School Computer Network--ARKnet is helping to provide direct Internet access throughout the state.
Today, over thirty-six states have what can be classified as state public sector or education networks.2 Perhaps the community-based approach employed by these states, with help from their local higher education institutions, can serve as a lesson as Congress debates how to cajole the telecommunications industry into deploying broadband into underserved residential areas.
1. The FCC report (Working Paper #31) can be found at http://www.fcc.gov/broadband/
2. See Net@EDU's State Public Networks Table at http://www.educause.edu/netatedu/contents/reports/
Note: EDUCAUSE, through the Net@EDU Network Extension Program, is working with the higher education community to find viable solutions for improving Internet connectivity.
Garret Sern, EDUCAUSE Policy Staff