Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- Making broadband Internet access universally available is this century's version of building highways or extending railroads coast-to-coast, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission said Tuesday.

Julius Genachowski said broadband is "a critical infrastructure challenge of our generation." As part of the federal stimulus package, the FCC is charged with creating a plan -- due in February -- to make broadband available everywhere in the country. The stimulus money also includes $7 billion in grants for broadband access, and the recipients will be announced soon, Genachowski said in a speech at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.

About 10 percent of the country doesn't have broadband available, and in Arkansas that number is about 13 percent, he said. In those areas when high-speed broadband is available, about 50 percent of Arkansans don't use it, he said. The national rate of "non-adoption" by people who don't use broadband -- even though the infrastructure is in place -- is 37 percent, he said.

"Often, people don't see the value of Internet in their homes or don't have the skills necessary to take advantage of connectivity," Genachowski said. "Others cite price. They aren't able to afford the service or the hardware."

Broadband access is critical for the country's economic development, Genachowski said, adding that putting the infrastructure in place will create jobs, help small businesses and make the U.S. more competitive.

In agriculture, for example, high-speed Internet access can help a farmer plan crops, buy feed, sell products and find weather information, Genachowski said.

"There is evidence that farmers can earn more, while consumers pay less, as a result of broadband-driven efficiencies," he said.

According to a report released last week by the FCC, the use of broadband varies greatly among different demographic groups. For example, nearly 90 percent of families with incomes of $100,000 or higher subscribe to broadband services, compared with 35 percent of families with incomes of $20,000 or less. Rural households are less likely to subscribe than urban households. About 65 percent of white households subscribe, compared with 46 percent of black households and 40 percent of Hispanic households, the report said.

"Broadband has immense power to improve the quality of lives of our citizens in innumerable ways, whether it's our troops serving in Iraq or a family living in Little Rock," Genachowski said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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