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The Open Internet Coalition, which claims to represent consumers, grassroots organizations, and businesses, called on Congress Thursday to adopt a national broadband policy for universal, affordable access to high-speed Internet connections.
In an open letter to lawmakers, the group said government and leaders in the private and non-profit sectors have long supported the goal, yet in the last few years the nation has slipped well behind other countries in penetration of broadband networks. The coalition blamed the trend on "an uncompetitive marketplace -- with monopolies and barriers to entry written into the law."
"In part, this is because we lack a comprehensive policy to address the digital divide, ensure the free flow of content, and promote the development of ubiquitous, high-speed Internet access at affordable prices," the letter said.
Broadband rankings released last month by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showed that the United States had dropped to 15th place from 12th place among industrialized nations in the percentage of people with broadband connections.
In addition, the United States ranked 20th in the 30-member OECD roster in terms of growth rate for broadband penetration in the last year. The U.S., however, held on to its lead as having the most number of broadband subscribers with 58 million.
The coalition said that as broadband networks became an integral part of the nation's economic and social life, the country was reaching a "tipping point where legislation is no longer simply welcome -- it is imperative."
"Taking concrete steps in this decade to increase access to the Internet is vital to economic growth, educational development, and social opportunity -- much like rural electrification in the 1930's and our Interstate Highway system in the 1950's," the letter said.
The coalition laid down several principles to guide congressional consideration. They included universal, affordable access to every citizen, whether rich or poor, or living in rural or urban areas.
The group also advocated an Internet that's open to all producers and consumers of content on fair and equal terms. "This principle, known as network neutrality, ensures that no self-interested gatekeeper can hold captive the online economic marketplace or marketplace of ideas," the coalition said.
Net neutrality is a concept supported by groups that fear cable operators and DSL providers could charge Internet companies for priority channels that would mean faster delivery of their services to Internet users. Such a multi-tier system would be a competitive disadvantage to startups and nonprofit groups, supporters of net neutrality argue.
Cable operators and DSL providers, which are mostly telecommunication companies, have argued that they should be able to prioritize information from sources paying higher fees, because such a system would help fund network improvements.
Finally, the coalition said the government should do what it can to maximize competition on next generation networks by guaranteeing access and by ensuring that all networks interconnect and interoperate.
Supporters of the coalition, according to a list on its Web site, include the American Library Association, Ask.com, Comptel, Earthlink, eBay, Electronic Retailing Association, Google, iWon, LendingTree, North Texas Technology Council, Shopping.com, Ticketmaster, TiVo, US PIRG, Washington Bureau for ISP Advocacy, and YouTube.