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A View from Brad King

U.S. Broadband Penetration Lags

It turns out that broadband penetration in the United States may not be all it’s cracked up to be, at least according to this press release from Free Press, a consumer-oriented group working to insure that the nation has a…

  • August 18, 2005

It turns out that broadband penetration in the United States may not be all it’s cracked up to be, at least according to this press release from Free Press, a consumer-oriented group working to insure that the nation has a robust and free media.

In a report done by the organization, they say that the penetration and affordability rates of broadband have been vastly overstated by the Federal Communications Commission, a fact, which if true, wouldn’t surprise me because of my experiences growing up – but I’m guessing that the reasons, at least in part, have nothing to do with availability and necessity.

Here’s a story:

The year was 1984. I was 12 when my father brought home the Commodore 64 and 1200 baud modem. It was the year of the Apple commercial. The year the personal computer began to make its move out of the universities and into mainstream American. I know that had to be the year because I was living in northern Appalachia, far removed from the mainstream American culture, and I had a computer.

We were tucked away in a little nook that was 20 minutes outside of Loveland, the little town in which we lived, which was another 25 minutes from Cincinnati, the nearest big city. When my father brought the computer in, neither he nor I had any idea what it could do. Years later, I asked him why he bought it, and he shrugged. “It seemed like something that you might need to know how to do.”

It took me almost a full day to get the computer hooked up, the dot-matrix printer working, and modem working. And, even when it was done, there was no software – so I just kinda stared at the contraption, with its wires everywhere. Eventually, though, I figured it out – and found my way on to BBSs and a variety of services that connected me to people from around the world.

Fast-forward to 2005.

When you live in a small town, you get to know everyone – whether you want to or not. And when I return, it’s a sprint from one side of town to the other, trying to see everyone I’ve ever known (it’s rude not to do such things) while simultaneously keeping in touch with my team at Technology Review.

The problem: everyone I know is still on the same dial-up services that I was on in 1984. It’s starting to change (I’ve heard), but not very quickly. There’s no need out there. In Appalachia, you still get your news from the paper, the television, the church, and the softball fields on Saturday evening. There isn’t a media-rush to find out what is happening every second of the day. Life is slower, quieter, and more relaxed.

There may come a time when ubiquitous, wireless access gives everyone instant access to a roving connection to the Internet. In fact, I know that time will come. Then, maybe, the habits of Appalachians and the millions of others who live between the coasts will find their lifestyles changing.

But it won’t be a fast change, no matter how much the technology improves.

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