US broadband plan 'not a priority' finds survey

Wires going into the back of a computer The government says 100 million Americans do not have broadband

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A majority of Americans believe the government's plan to deliver a high speed internet connection to every citizen by 2020 is either not important or should not be embarked upon.

The Pew Internet Project said 52% of survey respondents felt that way while 40% felt the issue was a top priority.

The surprise outcome comes amid a fierce debate about broadband.

"We are in economic hard times and any government spending is a hard sell," said report author Aaron Smith.

"The recession could be behind this sentiment that other issues are more important. It could also be that many non-users are nervous about a government promoting technology that they don't use, are unsure of and see as not really offering much of a clear benefit to them," Mr Smith told BBC News.

The public interest group, Public Knowledge, which has been very vocal in support of the government's broadband aims said the figures are nothing to worry about.

"I agree a large part of this is down to people saying money should be spent on recovery efforts, basic services or national defence and not something that might be couched or thought of as a luxury," said the group's deputy legal director Sherwin Siy.

"But building out broadband contributes to all of these things. During the last century people didn't recognise the benefits of electrification simply because they had gotten on fine before. It's the same here."

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Facebook continues to support principles of net neutrality for both landline and wireless networks”

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US regulators said the report does not undermine the administration's efforts and instead points to a need for further education about the importance of broadband for everything from jobs to health to education.

"There are still too many barriers to broadband adoption in America," said Jen Howard, spokeswoman for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

"That's why the broadband plan lays out a strategy for improving digital literacy and ensuring that all Americans can take full advantages of the benefits of broadband."

The Obama administration, which has dedicated $7.2 billion in stimulus money for broadband grants, has said that fast access to the internet is essential to encourage innovation and help the economy grow.

Promising signs

BBC Infographic

The study, which questioned 2,252 American adults, also found that broadband adoption has slowed "dramatically" over the last year. With penetration presently at 66%, researchers noted little has changed from the 63% mark recorded last year.

There was some measure of comfort in the result that 56% of the African-American community now have broadband connections in the home compared to 46% in 2009.

"This is an important story when talking about digital divide issues," said the report's Mr Smith.

"It is something that is new and that we have not seen before. Last year African-American growth was well below normal."

Mr Smith noted the change could be down to the fact this sector of the population was starting out from a smaller base of users and also that they are now more likely to own mobile phones, use the mobile web and social media apps.

'Vibrant and competitive'

In recent weeks the government's broadband plan has been the subject of heated debate, especially the principle known as net neutrality which is seen as a lynch pin of the initiative.

Net neutrality describes a principle where all web data is treated equally and no traffic is given priority on the network.

Last week the FCC halted closed-door meetings with service providers and internet companies to find a consensus on the issue. This week, search giant Google and telecoms titan Verizon unveiled its suggestions to help resolve the log jam.

It was greeted with a torrent of criticism for suggesting that fixed line broadband and mobile broadband should be treated differently.

While public interest and consumer groups have slated the proposals, social networking site Facebook is the biggest company to go public in its denunciation.

"Facebook continues to support principles of net neutrality for both landline and wireless networks," the company said in a statement.

"Preserving an open internet that is accessible to innovators - regardless of their size or wealth - will promote a vibrant and competitive marketplace where consumers have ultimate control over the content and services delivered through their internet connections."

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