By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley
Pressure groups see broadband investment as vital to the US economy
US regulators have unveiled the nation's first plan to give every American super-fast broadband by 2020.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has submitted the plan to Congress, said broadband was the "greatest infrastructure challenge".
It estimates that one-third of Americans, about 100 million people, are without broadband at home.
The FCC's goal is to provide speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps), compared to an average 4Mbps now.
"Broadband for every American is not too ambitious a plan and it is absolutely necessary," former FCC chairman Reed Hundt told BBC News.? Broadband Comparison, Mobile Phone Deals & More - Compare & Share at Top10.com
"The consequences of not succeeding are heartbreaking. Every nation needs a common medium to gather around and to have the internet as a common medium where a third are left out is unacceptable."
In an executive summary released ahead of the presentation to Congress, the FCC said: "Broadband is a foundation for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness and a better way of life.
WHAT GOVERNMENT WILL DO
Connect 100 million homes to super-fast broadband with speeds up to 100 megabits per second
Allocate spectrum to allow network updates for wireless broadband
Increase adoption rates to 90% and make sure every child is digitally literate before they leave school
Encourage greater competition among providers to make prices cheaper and deals easier to understand
Use digital switch-over fund to bring cheap broadband to rural areas
Provide one gigabit broadband to schools, hospitals and military installations
"It is changing how we educate children, deliver healthcare, manage energy, ensure public safety, engage government, and access, organise and disseminate knowledge".
For industry analyst Erik Sherman of business and news site BNet.com, all the talk "sounds like an overstatement".
"The plan cannot be a silver bullet for all these issues and problems which exist for a number of different reasons and not just because of a lack of broadband.
"The plan is very big in scope and if you look at the rationale, the FCC is basically saying we need more money for more internet. I am not saying we don't need a broadband plan but we have to be realistic about what it can and cannot do," Mr Sherman told BBC News.
'Fairy wings and wishes'
Months of hype and speculation has preceded the presentation of the country's first comprehensive broadband roadmap. The FCC has also held a series of briefings previewing its goals.
"It's an action plan, and action is necessary to meet the challenges of global competitiveness, and harness the power of broadband to help address so many vital national issues," said FCC chairman Julius Genachowski.
Wide differences in broadband access are revealed by statistics
The executive summary revealed that access to high-speed internet services had grown dramatically from eight million Americans 20 years ago to nearly 200 million today.
Estimates to implement the plan have been put at $350bn (£233bn). How that bill will be split between private investment and tax dollars is not known.
"Who pays and how much is the big fight ahead," said technology industry analyst Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group.
"The devil is in the detail and right now it's all fairy wings and wishes. The Republicans are going to fight anything that is excessively expensive while the Democrats have to be wary of looking like they are cutting cheques at a time when the government is for the most part broke."
The FCC will auction off some 500 megahertz of spectrum to pay for some of the expense. More than $7bn will come from President Obama's 2009 stimulus package, which targeted broadband-related initiatives.
For years the technology industry has pushed for the US government to create a national broadband plan.
A season of reports from 8-19 March 2010 exploring the extraordinary power of the internet, including:
- top thinkers in the business on the future of the web
- the BBC links up with an online community of bloggers around the world
Ahead of the meeting with Congress, a number of hi-tech companies wrote to Mr Genachowski to praise the plan.
"Broadband is critical to America's long-term economic and social well-being. As society increasingly moves online, the costs of digital exclusion grow as well," said the signatories of the letter, which included Cisco, Sony, Salesforce, Microsoft, Facebook and Intel.
One possible battleground is expected to be over the sale of spectrum that is mostly in the hands of television broadcasters.
Mobile carriers like AT&T and Verizon have said they will need more spectrum in future to provide superfast reliable internet connections to every customer.
"The problem is most of the spectrum is occupied by somebody else. They are going to want a lot of money for this," said Adam Thierer, president of the free-market leaning Progress & Freedom Foundation.