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November 4th, 2008
BLUEPRINT AMERICA
The Stance
Radio: The candidates on Internet infrastructure [Election 2008]

Rick Karr, Blueprint America correspondent

America’s status as an Internet innovator is under threat. International studies have argued that Americans pay more than Europeans and Asians for significantly worse internet service. The Internet is another aspect of the country’s infrastructure that is getting some attention from the presidential candidates.

In the third segment of a four part Blueprint America radio series, a report on where John McCain and Barack Obama stand on bringing the country’s Internet service up to speed.

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[Transcript]

The birthplace of the internet is doing pretty badly online by international standards. Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia. He says the United States ranks behind Korea, Japan, Germany, France, Iceland, and a score of other countries.

“What we have now, first of all, is in a very big country, a whole lot of slow connections. And we still have a lot of the country that’s underserved or not served at all by broadband. And I think it basically comes down to the fact that we never had a clear national policy of conversation about how we’d roll out broadband in this country.”

Both John McCain and Barack Obama agree. Federico Pena is a former secretary of Transportation and Energy, and a spokesperson for the Obama campaign.

“It’s embarrassing how far America is behind the world.”

Pena says expanding internet access by delivering broadband service to millions of Americans in rural communities and poor inner-city neighborhoods will be a top priority of an Obama administration. The private sector has ignored those markets, Pena says, so government needs to step in and get them online. The McCain campaign agrees. Douglas Holtz-Eakin is the Arizona senator’s senior economic advisor.

“If private entities are not going to deliver wireless internet or broadband to an area, municipal governments should be allowed to.”

But that’s where the agreement ends. The campaigns differ sharply on government’s role in regulating that service. The sticking point is what Americans can and can’t do with their internet connections. Let’s say you want to use a service called Skype, which lets you make phone calls online. Siva Vaidhyanathan says most internet providers, whether they’re phone or cable companies, have an interest in making sure that you don’t.

“Both of them have a very strong incentive to degrade he service of Skype for instance to make sure that I get frustrated with it and rush to their service.”

Vaidhyanathan says, right now, there’s no law against internet providers doing that, which means consumers have fewer choices. Douglas Holtz-Eakin says a President McCain would keep things as they are. Federico Pena says an Obama administration would push for a law that would ensure that Americans can use their broadband connections however they’d like.

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