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Can cloud computing spur ubiquitous broadband?

Buried in the talk about security, privacy and transnational data laws, it looks like the federal government’s cloud computing push also could bring progress on broadband accessibility. It’s no secret that the United States lags behind other developed countries in terms access to respectable broadband services, but Congress might finally be ready for action on the issue thanks to the advent of the cloud.

Tomorrow, the House Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation is holding a hearing on cloud computing, and the charter raises a very important concern:

Users of cloud computing services will require access to services at any time from any device with an internet connection. However, there are concerns that current broadband networks may not be able to provide constant on-demand access if cloud adoption grows. … Lack of adequate broadband access in areas where businesses are located or in areas where users want to access services remotely will likewise limit further widespread cloud computing adoption.

Cloud services are the new small businesses

If the government actually does get serious about pushing more and faster broadband access, I think it could boost the economy in the short and long term. Laying more fiber, for example, should result in short- to mid-term job creation. Cloud services running on the broadband network could be the small businesses of the next generation, which means job creation and tax revenue over the long haul.

The boom was a boon for the economy, but it was hindered by the difficulty and cost of building products and the infrastructure necessary to deliver on good ideas. This time around, with the cloud boom, everything is different. Cloud computing has made computing infrastructure dirt cheap, relatively speaking, which means web startups can focus on developing their offerings without investing millions in capital costs. We’re seeing companies launching and gaining customers even before they go after VC funding.

And almost everyone has at least some access to the web, whether it’s via traditional computer or mobile device, which appear to be the FCC’s focal point for delivering nationwide broadband. That means there is a large and diverse customer base that can support even niche cloud services, if only we have the Internet infrastructure to ensure almost everyone can utilize them.

But caps and speeds stand in the way

Lack of broadband access or low speeds won’t likely do much to inhibit the use of cloud computing by businesses that are located in connected areas and that can afford high-speed connections, but the Subcommittee is right in suggesting that it could cripple cloud adoption by consumers. My mother-in-law, for example, lives in the country just several miles from a small city, but she can’t get DSL or cable Internet. That means we can’t even Skype so she can see her granddaughter, and it certainly means she can’t leverage services such as Netflix (S NFLX) streaming.

And a poor connection means less time online generally, which means someone not utilizing popular services such as Skype or Netflix almost certainly isn’t taking advantage of all the web has to offer, from recipe search engines like Gojee to any variety of new e-commerce sites. You get online to do what you need to do — e-mail, Facebook, etc. — and log off.

But even in areas with broadband access, the availability, price and restrictions of fast connections is problematic. As more people use more cloud services, our country’s 3.9 Mbps average broadband connections will soon become saturated in the last mile. And as more business — and even the federal government — utilize cloud computing literally infinitely more than they did when our current infrastructure was built, that means even more congestion over the Internet backbone.

The government is pushing for 100 million homes to have 100 Mbps connections by 2020, but we need that today. There’s also the issue of broadband caps limiting access to the cloud and forcing consumers and web workers to troubleshoot and act as cops on their home networks.

Of course, the government can’t (or, at least, won’t) shoulder the entirety of this burden itself, which is why I’m actually somewhat  optimistic about the corporate participation in this process. Members of the CLOUD2 commission — which includes top executives from dozens of companies, including AT&T (s t), Verizon (s vz), Microsoft (s msft) and Google (s goog) — will be present at tomorrow’s hearing, and they’ve been fairly active over the past few months trying to push a forward-thinking congressional cloud agenda. CLOUD2’s members’ business interests certainly influence some of their action items, but they’re also the ones who can help ensure that consumers have the ability to consume their services.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Wesley Fryer.

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