Other than his resolve to usher in a new era, a significant contributor to Barack Obama's sweeping victory in the presidential election was his ability to effectively use technology to reach out to voters. Harnessing the power of digital technologies, particularly the Internet, Obama garnered unprecedented support for himself in the election. But he continues to seize the medium to make his government more accessible and transparent, and thus, sweeping the current popularity charts.
Yet as Obama delivers his weekly video addresses to the nation via WhiteHouse.gov or third-party sites like YouTube, an uncomfortable fact is that nearly half of all Americans can't watch his speeches on the Internet. Not that they don't want to, but because they lack Internet connectivity.
According to several recent surveys, the U.S. is falling behind in the global broadband penetration race. Far too many Americans lack broadband access, depriving them of the resources they need to compete in today's global economy.
The average broadband speed for American residents, for instance, is 5 Mbps, compared with 63 Mbps in Japan and 49 Mbps in South Korea. And according to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation's 2008 ITIF Broadband Rankings, 43 out of every 100 American households lack high-speed Internet connectivity.
Consequently, regardless of claims to the contrary by the FCC and many others, the digital divide in America is widening and will continue to grow unless some real changes are made.
But in some areas, the picture looks rosy. Take the Connectivity Scorecard 2009 that measures the extent to which governments, businesses and consumers use connectivity technologies to enhance social and economic prosperity. According to this report on information and communication technologies (ICT) penetration and usage in the business arena, the U.S. leads in business excellence connectivity. "The strong performance of the U.S. in the Connectivity Scorecard is a surprise," the report said.
The U.S. lags behind many countries in residential PC penetration and has lower mobile penetration than Europe (although actual mobile usage as measured in "outgoing minutes" is very high).
"Even as the U.S. scored consistently well across the board, especially in the business domain, where the weighting is heavy, the country is considerably weak in consumer infrastructure, falling a long way behind other leaders," said the Connectivity Scorecard's author Leonard Waverman, fellow of the London Business School and Dean of the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary.
"Besides, 3G penetration and broadband penetration is particularly moderate by standards of other industrial nations," he said, adding, "If the U.S. scored as high as Korea on 3G and broadband penetration, its overall score would have been far higher."
Connectivity Scorecard 2009 found some bright spots in the U.S.'s connectivity scenario, but the International Telecommunications Union's (ITU) Measuring the Information Society - ICT Development Index for 2009, released in February, showed disappointing results. Though all but one country improved their scores over the five-year period (2002-2007), a notable absence in the top 10 is the U.S., which ranked 17th in 2007, according to the study.
"Although gaining on both access and usage, the United States has not yet reached the same high ICT penetration levels as several European countries," according to the ITU's report. "In the United States, for example, 62 percent of households had Internet access in 2007, compared to 79 percent in Sweden."
Particularly disturbing is that the U.S., which was once at the forefront of broadband penetration and ICT-related advancements, is far behind Europe and even still-developing Korea, all of which started their journeys down the ICT highway much later.
With the exception of China, all top 10 countries in the ICT Development Index are European.
Within Europe, too, there were a few surprises as Nordic countries emerged as the most advanced in ICT use. Sweden, for instance, topped the ICT Development Index. This technology-savvy country - the largest in the Nordic region in population - made strong gains in ICT adoption, particularly the Internet.
Similarly Denmark and Norway gained on almost all facets of ICT - such as fixed broadband, household Internet access, mobile penetration, etc. Even Iceland, with no mobile broadband availability, managed to stay on the top 10 list.
In terms of ICT advancements, particularly notable is Korea, which was second in the ICT Development Index, gaining the most among all countries. According to Susan Teltscher, head of the ITU's Market Information and Statistics Division, Korea reached that position mainly by improving its intensity of broadband use. During the past few years, Korea has increased its broadband penetration significantly and comes in second globally, after Japan, in mobile broadband penetration, according to the ICT Development Index.
"Clearly western and northern Europe is going ahead of the U.S.," said Teltscher. "And the U.S. is not among the top 10 partly because, in some areas such as broadband penetration and household Internet access, it hasn't reached the same penetration rates as some of the European countries."
The other reason the U.S. is lagging, according to ITIF's latest report, The Need for Speed: The Importance of Next-Generation Broadband Networks, is that, notwithstanding the importance that has been given to boosting broadband speeds, U.S. policymakers have largely focused on reducing the digital divide by increasing broadband availability and adoption by most households and businesses. Although ensuring all Americans have access to the Internet, not enough importance has been given to making Americans capable of using the Internet effectively.
Ilkka Lakaniemi, head of global political dialogue and initiatives for Nokia Siemens Networks, the company that commissioned the Connectivity Scorecard, agreed that more emphasis on technology skills is needed in the U.S.
"The main lesson that comes out of the Connectivity Scorecard 2009 is that the U.S., in order to get the most benefit out of the ICT infrastructure, hasn't focused enough on skill as well as on the technology side, and must do so now," he said. "In the case of the U.S., the consumers do not have the same skills and assets that Japan or Korea have."
In other words, even if U.S. technology usage is broad-based, it doesn't have as good a consumer-facing infrastructure, such as broadband and 3G networks, as Japan and Korea.
That's why "the $7.2 billion allotted to broadband in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is not enough," said Waverman. "The U.S. needs to do much more. And now is the time to spend on improving ICT infrastructure because although the bang for each buck spent on non-ICT infrastructure is greater, America needs to be investing for the infrastructure of the 21st century."
However, ITIF said what's been allocated should be spent judiciously. "Given the relatively limited funds allocated to broadband in the stimulus package, we believe that the most effective use of these funds is to support the deployment of moderate-speed broadband to homes or businesses in the underserved areas, and not be used to subsidize higher speeds in areas where homes can already subscribe to broadband," ITIF said in its report.
It added that deploying next-generation broadband will not only have "profoundly positive benefits" for consumers, businesses, academic institutions, but also society in general.
Next-generation broadband can also solve one of the U.S.'s biggest problems - unemployment - better than any other stimulus. "As other countries race toward average download speeds in excess of 50 Mbps, the time has come to develop a comprehensive strategy for the deployment of a ubiquitous next-generation broadband network," the report said. "Deploying next-generation broadband to 80 percent of U.S. households that currently lack it would create approximately 2 million new or retained, direct and indirect jobs in the United States."