Broadband Internet access has become the lifeblood of the tech world. Bill Gates says its spread has enabled the digital decade. Intel boss Paul Otellini...

Share story

LAS VEGAS — Broadband Internet access has become the lifeblood of the tech world. Bill Gates says its spread has enabled the digital decade. Intel boss Paul Otellini says ubiquitous wireless broadband will help unlock the “personal Internet.”

But the United States often suffers in comparisons to European countries and South Korea when it comes to this important resource.

Kevin Martin, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said here Tuesday that those comparisons fail to account for differences in size and population density, which complicate the delivery of broadband.

Martin also discussed the upcoming government auction of broadcast spectrum, a complicated, highly technical process that will have major implications for television, public safety communications and wireless broadband access. The process could help deliver the resource to more rural Americans.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported last June that the U.S. was 15th among its member countries ranked by broadband subscribers per 100 inhabitants. In America, there are 22.1 subscribers per 100 people compared with 34.3 in top-ranked Denmark and 29.9 in fourth-ranked South Korea.

Martin said a fairer comparison would be to look at individual states that have population densities similar to the leading broadband countries.

“The population density is about the same in Massachusetts and Japan, for example, and actually the broadband penetration is about the same,” Martin said, adding that the same can be said of New Jersey and Korea or Florida and Finland.

But instead of focusing on these comparisons, he told a large audience at the International Consumer Electronics Show, we should be asking what else can be done to offer more people broadband access, particularly in rural areas.

Broadcast television will switch from analog to digital on Feb. 17, 2009, making room on the spectrum for wireless broadband and public safety communications. The 9/11 Commission Report highlighted poor communications among police and firefighters responding to the terrorist attacks.

The digital switchover, mandated by Congress, also promises a higher-quality TV picture and interactive content, Martin said.

Portions of the 700 megahertz spectrum left vacant by the television stations goes up for auction Jan. 24, with major telecommunications companies, as well as new players, such as Google, preparing to bid billions.

This spectrum can carry large amounts of data over long distances using relatively little power.

“That’s why [it] was used for television,” Martin said. That’s also why it promises to “dramatically increase” wireless broadband service in rural areas, he added.

The FCC will require companies that win the auction to build it out rather than sit on it, Martin said.

“We want to make sure that that’s being put to use as quickly as possible. … That’s really going to be the ultimate test of [the auction’s] success,” he said.

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or