Broadband Subsidies and the Internet: A Half-full Glass

A story has been making the rounds of the net the past couple of days citing a study that seems to show that most Americans don;t want the government to make affordable broadband a priority. A recent example from Engadget: “Pew study finds majority of Americans don’t want government to prioritize affordable broadband.”

Problem is, that’s not what the study by the Pew Internet & American Life Study found. Pew, which generally does very high quality polling work, muddied the water badly by asking a hairball of a question, the mischaracterizing its own results. In the interest of fairness, here’s the original question and the reported results:

“Do you think that expanding affordable highspeed internet access to everyone in the country should be a top priority for the federal government, important but a lower priority, not too important, or should it not be done?”

Top priority   11%
Important, but lower 30%
Not too important 27%
Should not be done  26%

In the report narrative, Pew characterized this result as: “By a 53%-41% margin, Americans say they do not believe that the spread of affordable broadband should be a major government priority.” That’s technically correct, but it would be just as correct to say that by a 68%-26% margin, Americans say that the government should give at least some priority to the spread of affordable broadband. What appears to be a clear-cut results turns out on closer inspection to be equivocal.

In fact, the result is murkier than that. Since it is left entirely to the respondent to decide what an “important priority” means, it’s almost impossible to make sense of the result. I happen to think that government has a very important role to play in making affordable broadband available. But a “top priority”? Compared to what? I would rank it above, say, ethanol subsidies, but below providing for the common defense, food inspection, and air traffic control.

The fact is that polling of this sort, on questions that most members of the public have given little thought to, is essentially a waste of time and money. It gets some headlines and generates a lot of chatter on the blogs, but contributes nothing to actual knowledge.

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