?Hey Ryan, is your Internet working? Mine just cut out,
again!?

Hearing a version of this from one of my roommates is
practically a weekly occurrence. This frequently takes place when I have a
giant paper due the next day. Almost as frustrating is when my side of the
building loses Internet on a Friday, guaranteeing the repair person won?t be
able to come until the following Monday. The customer service representative
could not care less how integral the Internet is to the life of the
21st-century college student.

I?m not the only one frustrated with the ludicrously high
rates and poor quality of the service of our local cable monopoly, Charter
Communications. Charter was ranked as the worst Internet service provider in
2007 by PC World magazine. Madison needs a strong competitor with Charter as
badly as it needs faster snow removal and fewer public appearances by Kevin
Barrett. I would gladly jump at the opportunity to take advantage of the magic
of free market capitalism, switch my provider, and watch Charter shrivel up and
die.

But the continuing existence of Charter is only a symptom of
a larger problem. The United States lacks a comprehensive broadband strategy.
We are lagging behind the rest of the world in terms of access, speed and
reliability. This is especially pertinent at a time when the country may be
entering into an economic recession. Our digital divide is likely to have a
dire effect on economic growth in the future if it is not remedied by an
aggressive effort to provide universal broadband access.

The Internet is increasingly the engine that drives our
economy. Internet sales totaled more than $259 billion in 2006, an increase of
18 percent from the previous year. It connects people to each other in
countless social networks. A recent Zogby poll found that the Internet is the
primary source of information about the 2008 presidential race for 48 percent
of Americans, and candidates are increasingly raising their money online. The
Internet is essential for public safety, allowing emergency responders to
pinpoint problems instantly and coordinate relief efforts.

Given all the wonders of the Internet, shouldn?t the United
States make it a priority to ensure all its citizens have access to this great
equalizer? Tragically, the United States lags behind many countries on a number
of crucial indicators of digital capacity.

The United States is currently ranked 16th in the world in
terms of high-speed Internet subscribers. The percentage of GDP spent on
telecommunications equipment is also relatively low. Due to our poor digital
infrastructure, consumers get far less speed per dollar they spend. While
Americans pay on average about $40-50 per month for a cable connection that
delivers 3-5 millions of bits of data per second (mbps), Japanese pay only
about $22 per month for an average speed of 26 mbps.

The digital divide within the United States is largely a
function of income. Sixty-two percent of households with incomes over $100,000
subscribe to broadband, while only 11 percent of households with incomes below
$30,000 subscribe.

In addition to cost, many parts of the United States,
especially rural areas, simply do not have broadband Internet access available.
Dial-up access is quickly becoming obsolete as the Internet becomes dominated
by video-based multimedia that simply takes too long to load with such a slow
connection.

Clearly this digital divide is crying out for federal
investment in telecommunications infrastructure. Although the United States is
clearly a much larger country than Japan with more low population density
areas, there are ways to get around the geography problem. In fact, 36 percent
of rural Americans lack Internet access of any kind. The Wall Street Journal
reported last week that high-speed Internet is increasingly being beamed down
to rural areas via weather balloons. One balloon can serve an area that would
have required 40 cell towers.

The digital divide also hits close to home. Wisconsin ranks
a dismal 34th in average Internet connection speed among the states. Even
larger towns tend to be dominated by only one or two Internet service
providers. How can we expect people to start businesses that rely on the
Internet in Madison, Wis. if they can?t expect affordable and reliable internet
access?

The state government should prioritize investment in
broadband access as a way to restructure the state?s economy, especially in
light of the continuing loss of manufacturing jobs. This will encourage startup
companies to begin competing with entrenched monopolies like Charter.

The jobs of the future and our nation?s global
competitiveness require a national strategy that assures universal broadband
access. No one can afford to stay offline these days, and we don?t need to be
stuck paying so much for such poor service.

?

Ryan Greenfield ([email protected]) is
a junior majoring in political science and economics.