Gov't Push for Broadband Access Yields Gains; Data Privacy Still a Challenge

President Obama's National Broadband Plan has helped expand Internet access in the U.S., but needs to be updated to account better data protection needs.

President Obama's National Broadband Plan, four years old this month, set out a far-reaching strategy for expanding Internet access in the U.S. to improve jobs and public safety and make it easier for average citizens to access information on everything from personal health care records to home energy use.

One thing the voluminous plan didn't include was an effort to protect data privacy, a topic now top of mind for policymakers in Washington after the Edward Snowden revelations about surveillance of phone records by the National Security Agency.

"A big thing we were not able to do [in the Broadband Plan] was about data security and privacy," said Blair Levin, one of the strategists and authors of the Broadband Plan. Levin oversaw its development when he was on the staff at the Federal Communications Commission and is now a fellow at the Aspen Institute, a policy studies group in Washington.

"The whole area of personal privacy is huge," Levin said. "If the plan were redone, it would focus a lot more on that. Even Singapore is way ahead of us on a lot of that."

While data privacy was discussed in the 2010 plan, it deserved its own separate chapter, Levin said in an interview after joining a panel discussion on Wednesday that included other authors of the plan. The event was held at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington.

But big technology changes don't come overnight, Levin said, and he quoted a passage in the plan that said, "this plan is in beta and always will be."

Levin also said he believes the Broadband Plan should be updated, probably in advance of the next presidential election in 2016, so that whomever is elected can install a transition team to consider the updated plan's contents.

Other panelists involved in the effort while at the FCC noted the plan's role in boosting broadband connections to homes and how it has affected Internet use in homes, schools and industry, including the efficiency of the nation's massive electric grid.

Home broadband connections have increased from 65% in 2009 to 72% recently, according to John Horrigan, one of the plan's authors who now is an independent technology policy consultant. When smartphones are added to the number of broadband-connected homes, about 80% of homes have what he called an advanced broadband connection.

Rather than focus on the increase in broadband connections, Horrigan said, "the lesson there is that we have a lot to do with the expansion of non-broadband users." Many homeowners say that banks and insurance companies, among other businesses, are counting on customers to conduct business with them via the Internet, which implies that businesses should be willing to help pay for broadband expansion as government incentives dry up, he said.

"We have between 25% to 30% of the country not online with broadband at home," Horrigan said. "When banks and insurance companies expect people to have broadband at home when they are delivering services, they need to understand that the true last mile is making sure everybody is online. These institutions need to be part of the equation for funding broadband."

The National Broadband Plan of 2010 recommended a universal broadband connection goal of at least 4Mbps for downloads and 1Mbps for uploads for all homes, libraries, schools and businesses -- speeds that now seem slow. The plan also called for 100Mbps download speeds and 50Mbps upload speeds for 100 million U.S. homes.

Several on the panel said reaching broadband speeds of 20Mbps or faster for downloads should be less important to policymakers at the FCC and elsewhere than connecting more homes, schools and businesses to the 4Mbps speed.

"Speed is tremendously important, but only one part of what's needed," said Nick Sinai, who authored a portion of the original plan and now is Deputy Chief Technology Officer for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. "The average school has about the same speed as a home, but 200 times as many users, and few teachers feel it meets their instructional needs. So it's more than speed; reliability and resiliency and interoperability are important as raw speeds."

Sinai's comment brought a question from the audience about why medical records of U.S. military veterans can't be shared online with the Veterans Administration. Members of the panel said the problem of moving veterans' records through the online system is less about technology than about policy.

Sinai said the Obama Administration is "working hard" at making the connection happen seamlessly, but added, "frankly, we need to do a better job."

Chapter 12 of the Broadband Plan, written by Sinai, discussed ways to improve the nation's smart electric grid. With 3,000 different electric utilities in the U.S., there are various legacy infrastructures and different ways to generate and deliver power. "No one size first all, so IP networking for public and private utilities is tremendously important," Sinai said.

In 2010, there were 10 million smart electric meters in use in the U.S.; that number now has risen to 50 million, and should exceed 65 million in two years, helping improve electric utility efficiency, Sinai said.

The Broadband Plan also called for customers to get access to their own energy usage data, and "Obama partnered with electric utilities to allow 100 million American access to their own electric utility usage data," Sinai said. Having the data online has helped homeowners do online energy audits through private-sector management services.

"Software is taking over a very manual process," he said, referring to the paper records that previously were used.

In healthcare, Sinai said that 150 million Americans now get access to some form of their health records. Also, Internal Revenue Service tax record data is now going online for easy access.

"We're not at the point where we can centralize [all data], but we are working across agencies for Americans to get access to their own information in...easy-to-read formats," Sinai said.

When Sinai concluded his remarks on the theme of centralizing data for all Americans, panel moderator Robert Atkinson quipped, "Our centralization is the NSA -- I couldn't help myself." There was laughter in the room.

Atkinson is the president of the ITIF.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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This story, "Gov't Push for Broadband Access Yields Gains; Data Privacy Still a Challenge" was originally published by Computerworld.

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