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February 2, 2004

Consumer Group Hosts Discussion of Broadband Technology

From: Telecomweb - Feb 2, 2004

The National Consumers League hosted consumer and worker advocates, government regulators, think tanks, and industry representatives, to a Washington forum on Jan. 29 on the current state of broadband in the U.S. Attendees discussed issues of regulation, affordability hurdles, and American's lag -- behind a growing number of nations -- in broadband penetration. Speakers and attendees included Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), a member of the House Commerce and Judiciary committees; FTC Commissioner Mozelle Thompson; Jessica Rosenworcel, legal advisor to FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps; and Robert Crandall, senior fellow in the Economic Studies Program of the Brookings Institution.

Boucher opened the half-day event with a discussion of the opportunities broadband has brought to his ninth congressional district of Virginia, which includes very rural areas within the commonwealth's most southwestern regions. In counties as small as 5,000, community-based broadband programs, or "electronic villages" have been created, serving the purposes of telemedicine, higher education, and economic development. Boucher argued, based on his own district's experiences, that the Internet is an invaluable tool that is well worth local government filling the gap with broadband connection. "Let's clear the way for investment; let's clear the way for community networks," he said.

"With technology moving at a blistering pace," Rosenworcel commented, "the FCC is charged with making sure consumers aren't lost in the shuffle." Rosenworcel said Commissioner Copps is committed to the goal of the creation of a national broadband policy and that change is mandated by Section 706 of the Telecom Act.

Consumer advocates expressed concern about affordability and a growing digital divide, and what Rosenworcel described as increasingly a "broadband chasm." George Kohl, assistant to the president and director of research for the Communications Workers of America, lamented the lack of consumer choice created by provider monopolies and lay-offs affecting tens of thousands of workers across the country.

Andy Imparato, NCL board member and president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, and Gail Hunt, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Caregiving, each described the ways broadband benefits their constituents: caregivers, who are desperate for resources and training and increasingly turning to the Internet for that, and the disabled, including the hearing-impaired, for whom the replacement of TTY with two-way sign language communication is a boon.

Link Hoewing, assistant vice president of Internet, technology and security policy for Verizon, wrapped up the day's forum with statistics on trends and predictions about the future of broadband. Competition within the electronic communications marketplace has increased control for consumers, he argued, with lower prices, customization options, the expansion of technologies to "mass market" status, and the affect of advancements in higher-tech fields on more traditional services.

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