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Tech Industry

Poll shows tough road for broadband

A Harris Interactive-CNET poll suggests presidential candidates may have tough sell convincing Americans to pay for their broadband expansion plans.

Presidential campaign proposals to build a national broadband network may be difficult to sell to the American public, according to a survey conducted jointly by CNET and Harris Interactive.

The nationwide poll, which surveyed more than 1,000 people with Internet access, found that 72 percent of respondents support government efforts to make high-speed Internet access universally available. But backing for the activist policy has stalled on the question of who pays--and how much.

"People are in favor of many things, until you put price tags on them," said Blair Levin, a telecommunications analyst at financial firm Legg Interactive Poll chart Mason Wood Walker. "As most folks in Washington want to have their cake and eat it, too, why should consumers thinking about broadband be any different?"

President Bush earlier this year called for universal broadband connections throughout the United States by 2007 and ordered federal agencies to accelerate the process of granting broadband providers access to federal land. He has also strongly advocated the extension of a ban on Internet access taxes.

Democratic challenger John Kerry also backs the idea of universal broadband access, likening it to the government's program to provide electricity to rural areas in the 1930s. Kerry proposes a 20 percent tax credit for companies investing in "next generation" broadband networks and, like Bush, supports the use of more wireless spectrum for the high-speed technology.

The federal government has historically helped ensure that telephone access is available to all Americans, including rural and low-income areas, where service might not otherwise be available. Most respondents to the Interactive Poll agreed that it was important or extremely important for all Americans to have Internet access, whether by broadband or dial-up connection.

At the same time, by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent, they opposed any government plan to directly subsidize the extension of broadband access to rural areas or for low-income citizens. Similarly, nearly 70 percent was against paying higher access fees to fund the expansion of broadband to those areas.

Government moves
Some industry and political veterans believe that Americans are skeptical of any government initiatives, especially given its track record on telecom regulation. Others are concerned that legislators will back one form of broadband technology over another, disrupting free-market competition.

"The government is more likely to be wrong than to be right," said Rick White, the CEO of industry group TechNet and a former congressman who helped draft the landmark Telecommunications Act of 1996. "At the end of the day, those decisions get made on political, not economic, grounds." Interactive Poll chart

Even Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has acknowledged the failings of government regulation in today's telecommunications industry. "Right now, we're in a terrible position where a company's regulatory treatment is more a matter of from whence they came rather than what they're really doing now," he said during a visit to Silicon Valley this month.

Levin, FCC chief of staff during the Clinton Administration, said a Bush or Kerry administration should consider other factors that could make broadband policy more financially acceptable to voters, such as tying it to new jobs.

"If you want government to stimulate universal, big broadband so that it will arrive sooner than the market might otherwise have it happen, then you need to make sure it reaches everywhere and that it creates jobs," he said. "You need a mechanism to pay for it that doesn't rise to the level of being onerous or politically problematic."

Special series shows how the U.S.
can build a broadband network.

Among the poll respondents who already have broadband connections, roughly 74 percent said a new $1 general government tax would not affect a decision to keep or subscribe to broadband. About 16 percent said it would be less likely to sign up for broadband service, while another 8 percent would be more likely to stay with or return to dial-up rather than shoulder the extra charge.

Party affiliations of respondents to the CNET Interactive Poll were split along the political spectrum, with about 33 percent identifying itself as a Democrat and 34 percent as a Republican. The rest consisted of independents and fringe parties.

Other findings of note among adult broadband subscribers:

--61 percent of respondents said they were concerned about security and privacy issues when on a broadband connection.

--52 percent said the overall cost of the service is a more important factor in choosing among Internet access alternatives than the connection speed.

--63 percent spends the same amount of time watching television as it spent before getting a broadband connection, compared with 34 percent who spend fewer hours in front of the tube (or flat screen).

--63 percent is spending more time online now than when logged on to the Internet via a dial-up connection.

--65 percent has engaged in more uploading and downloading of work-related information since getting a broadband connection.

--6.5 percent of respondents have had a broadband connection for more than five years.

This poll was conducted online within the United States between June 22 and June 30 among a nationwide cross-section of 1,079 consumers with Internet access. The results carry a statistical precision of plus or minus 3 percentage points.