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Feds look to get more Americans up to Web speed

WASHINGTON - Roughly 40 percent of Americans do not have high-speed Internet access at home, according to new Commerce Department figures that underscore the challenges facing policymakers who are trying to bring affordable broadband connections to everyone.

The Obama administration and Congress have identified universal broadband as a key to driving economic development, producing jobs and bringing educational opportunities and cutting-edge medicine to all corners of the country.

"We're at a point where high-speed access to the Internet is critical to the ability of people to be successful in today's economy and society at large," said Larry Strickling, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an arm of the Commerce Department that released the data yesterday.

The NTIA and the Rural Utilities Service, part of the Agriculture Department, are in the middle of handing out $7.2 billion in stimulus funding for broadband. Most of that money will be used to build networks in parts of the country that lack high-speed Internet access.

And next month, the Federal Communications Commission will deliver policy recommendations to Congress on how to make universal broadband a reality. Among other things, the FCC is expected to propose expanding the fund that subsidizes telephone service in poor and rural communities, finding more airwaves for wireless broadband services and modernizing the FCC's rural telemedicine program to bring thousands of health clinics online.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said yesterday he wants 100 million U.S. households to have access to ultra high-speed Internet connections, with speeds of 100 megabits per second, by 2020. That would be several times faster than the download speeds many U.S. homes with broadband get now - 3 megabits to 20 megabits per second.

Genachowski also wants the United States to test even higher broadband speeds. One such test-bed network could come from Google Inc., which said last week it plans to build a few experimental fiber-optic networks that would deliver 1 gigabit per second to as many as 500,000 Americans. That would be 10 times faster than a 100 megabit-per-second connection.

The NTIA report also highlight hurdles, particularly in rural America. While 66 percent of urban households subscribed to broadband in October, that was true for only 54 percent of rural households, the survey found.

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