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Senate Committee Seeks Faster Internet and More Broadband Data

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WASHINGTON, September 16 - Senators on the Commerce Committee on Tuesday promoted the benefits of high-speed internet access and called for the passage of measures designed to provide more public information about broadband, and more broadband connectivity.

At a hearing on “Why Broadband Matters,” the committee heard testimony – remotely – from an Alaska telehealth facility, among others.

Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, pressed for passage of his Broadband Data Improvement Act, S. 1492, and Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, announced his Telehealth for America bill designed to expand current programs supporting broadband-enabled telehealth applications.

Consumer representatives praised the benefits of broadband connectivity and advocated more be done in the U.S. to improve broadband speeds, penetration rates, and data on availability.

The hearing focused on how consumers can utilize broadband for applications including telemedicine, distance education, and long-distance family and community communications.

The testimony of Gene Peltola, on the impact of telemedicine in a remote Alaska village, relied upon internet-based videoconferencing. Peltola is CEO of Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation in Bethel, Alaska. "With gas at $8 a gallon," Peltola told the committee, "anything but the most vital of services becomes cost-prohibitive to deliver [in rural Alaska]." To overcome these costs, towns and tribes in Alaska have partnered with broadband providers to deliver sufficient broadband speeds and connectivity to support a variety of telehealth services, including radiological exams with doctors in Dayton, Ohio.

The Universal Service rural healthcare program that supports such initiatives "has saved countless lives in Alaska," he said.

Other witnesses provided anecdotal accounts of the benefits of broadband – but were quick to criticize current levels of internet service for many Americans. Jonathan Linkous, executive director of the American Telemedicine Association, said that "telemedicine 3.0 is where we are for some Americans, but not for all."

Sen. Stevens expressed similar concerns. "It's clear that smaller rural health care providers need to be connected to the Internet, too." The Alaska senator's Telehealth for America 2008 bill is designed to expand the universal service fund’s Rural Health Care Program to smaller towns and additional medical professionals.

Larry Cohen, president of the Communication Workers of America, said he was concerned with the current state of broadband in the U.S. He produced data from his organization's initiative, Speed Matters, which found that average U.S. broadband speeds were far below those of leading industrial nations like Japan, South Korea, Finland, and Canada.

Questioning the witnesses, senators expressed a desire for more and better data on current connectivity levels and the costs of improvement.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., asked Cohen what nations like Canada are doing differently in order to achieve higher speeds than the U.S. and the union representative responded that Canada has mapped broadband and the U.S. should do the same because "we need to know where we stand."

Improving broadband data collection and mapping through S. 1492 was often mentioned as a key step in improving connectivity in the U.S. Last year the House has passed similar legislation, the Broadband Census of America Act, or H.R. 3919.

Other recommendations included reforms to the universal service fund to make it more robust and to direct needed funds to rural broadband services, to develop higher standards for the definition of broadband in the US in order to improve speeds, and for the development of a national broadband policy to coordinate and further fund current efforts to enhance and expand services.

Inouye summed up many of these recommendations in his closing remarks. He advocated a national policy that would focus on broadband and expressed his concerns that there was insufficient data available on broadband. "We're hungry for data, we're hungry for facts," said Inouye.

In a press release following the hearing, Inouye called for the immediate passage of S. 1492, saying that "this is not about regulation or deregulation. This is about getting the facts, because from good information flows good policy."

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