U.S. government push for broadband access yields gains; data privacy still a challenge

Matt Hamblen

"We have between 25% to 30% of the country not online with broadband at home," Horrigan said. "When banks and insurance companies expect people to have broadband at home when they are delivering services, they need to understand that the true last mile is making sure everybody is online. These institutions need to be part of the equation for funding broadband."

The National Broadband Plan of 2010 recommended a universal broadband connection goal of at least 4Mbps for downloads and 1Mbps for uploads for all homes, libraries, schools and businesses -- speeds that now seem slow. The plan also called for 100Mbps download speeds and 50Mbps upload speeds for 100 million U.S. homes.

Several on the panel said reaching broadband speeds of 20Mbps or faster for downloads should be less important to policymakers at the FCC and elsewhere than connecting more homes, schools and businesses to the 4Mbps speed.

"Speed is tremendously important, but only one part of what's needed," said Nick Sinai, who authored a portion of the original plan and now is Deputy Chief Technology Officer for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. "The average school has about the same speed as a home, but 200 times as many users, and few teachers feel it meets their instructional needs. So it's more than speed; reliability and resiliency and interoperability are important as raw speeds."

Sinai's comment brought a question from the audience about why medical records of U.S. military veterans can't be shared online with the Veterans Administration. Members of the panel said the problem of moving veterans' records through the online system is less about technology than about policy.

Sinai said the Obama Administration is "working hard" at making the connection happen seamlessly, but added, "frankly, we need to do a better job."

Chapter 12 of the Broadband Plan, written by Sinai, discussed ways to improve the nation's smart electric grid. With 3,000 different electric utilities in the U.S., there are various legacy infrastructures and different ways to generate and deliver power. "No one size first all, so IP networking for public and private utilities is tremendously important," Sinai said.

In 2010, there were 10 million smart electric meters in use in the U.S.; that number now has risen to 50 million, and should exceed 65 million in two years, helping improve electric utility efficiency, Sinai said.

The Broadband Plan also called for customers to get access to their own energy usage data, and "Obama partnered with electric utilities to allow 100 million American access to their own electric utility usage data," Sinai said. Having the data online has helped homeowners do online energy audits through private-sector management services.

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