U.S. Out of the Running in Net Race

Opinion: We need to wake up to the realization that the consequences of becoming an Internet also-ran are grave.

With the Winter Olympics under way, Americans will be treated, as usual, to the spectacle of certain small countries that excel in certain sports beating the pants off everyone else, including the United States.

While events such as the biathlon enthrall us fleetingly every four years, the accomplishments of dedicated individuals who labor in obscurity show whats possible when excellence and pride are at stake.

The athletic contests offer a good backdrop for us to consider the U.S. position in the global Internet excellence standings.

Sadly, our position in the standings is not good, and its not due to any hanky-panky by venal judges. Statistics show that the United States ranks a staggeringly distant 25th in broadband coverage, far below South Korea and Japan at the top.

Seventy-five percent of South Korean homes have broadband access, compared with only 20 percent of U.S. homes. Further, the average South Korean bandwidth is 20M bps, compared with 2M bps in this country.

/zimages/7/28571.gifClick here to find out why some say that broadband Net access in the U.S. will continue to languish behind other countries without municipal Wi-Fi projects.

While you might expect the coverage of small nations with dense populations to look better compared with the United States, whose population is spread out over great distances, do we really find these results acceptable?

Another standard of Internet excellence, IPv6, is languishing in this country, the subject of incremental, piecemeal adoption. A recent Department of Commerce study cautioned against a mindless push to implement IPv6, absent an economic imperative. But we find the notion of "if you build it, they will come" more persuasive.

The consequences of continuing to lag could be stark. Why should companies want to locate in the United States if the Internet infrastructure is spotty?

The U.S. government offers a wide array of tax breaks as incentives for behaviors deemed in the common interest, from homeownership to sugar production to hybrid-vehicle purchases.

Maybe its time to consider some serious incentives for ISPs that deliver higher bandwidth to customers, as well as for customers that purchase it.

The United States in the past has taken great strides with such projects as interstate highways; the NASA space program; and even the Internet itself, which started life as a DARPA project. As it happens, all these were conceived with the Cold War as a spur, driving home the troubling consequences of not succeeding in those initiatives.

So it should not come as a big surprise that we can look with hope to developments at the Department of Defense, which has mandated IPv6 adoption in its networks by 2008. At the IPv6 summit late last year in Reston, Va., Adm. Edmund Giambastiani, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other officers reportedly stressed the importance of communication in successful military operations—and that adoption of IPv6 is literally a matter of life and death.

That kind of imperative should help set the pace for the rest of the country to adopt this technology. We need to wake up to the realization that the consequences of becoming an Internet also-ran are also grave in terms of the ability of the countrys businesses to compete and its citizens to prosper. This is serious business, and the time to get going is now.

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