Some 55 percent of Americans have high-speed or broadband Internet service at home, according to a Pew study conducted earlier this year. There's been a steady increase in home broadband for several years, as prices have dropped and the amount of online video has increased.
But as we hear from VOA's Art Chimes, the United States is not keeping up with some other industrialized countries, where broadband service is often faster and cheaper.
Internet-related companies and organizations representing users are hoping the incoming Obama administration will develop a strategy for expanding the reach of broadband access.
Many of those groups are members of the Internet Innovation Alliance. Co-Chairman Larry Irving noted that Barack Obama's successful election campaign made unprecedented use of the Internet to organize supporters, get out its message and raise money.
"And that's what this debate in this country over the next several weeks and months is going to be: how do we get the infrastructure we need and deserve, how to make sure that every American that wants it can afford it and can have it in his or her household; that every small businessperson, that every entity of government is using it to do their job better.
"The thing about broadband isn't that it's something abstract. It's not something that is just good because it's there. It's good because of what it can do."
Doctors in Rural Areas Use Telemedicine to Improve Health Care
Some of those uses were highlighted at a symposium in Washington on Wednesday.
One of the most dramatic areas where high-speed Internet can make a difference is in health care, particularly in remote areas.
Broadband Internet connections make it possible for doctors at rural clinics and hospitals to consult directly with specialists at a major medical center. It allows more patients to be treated closer to home, and it has an unanticipated benefit for those doctors at the rural hospital.
"The primary care physician who uses a telemedicine system over a period of time actually decreases their consultative requests for the best of reasons: their educational level has been increased so that the question that they had previously, they now know how to take care of, and they don't need to ask for the specialist," explained Dr. Jay Sanders, adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins Medical School.
Internet-Based Lessons Becoming Important Tool for Teachers
Broadband Internet service is also helping in education. Math and science teachers, who are in short supply, can reach more students through lessons transmitted over the Internet. Schools can also use the Internet to enrich the curriculum.
"If you're in Kentucky or Michigan, in both of those states, virtual schools are offering Mandarin Chinese [classes] that are co-taught by a licensed teacher in that state with a teacher in China," says Susan Patrick of the North American Council for Online Learning.
"And those students are able to do voice-over-IP [Internet Protocol] and have discussions with Chinese students and the Chinese teachers."
She says that in the years to come, a blended style of education is likely to emerge, with Internet-based lessons an important adjunct to regular, in-person teaching.
High-Speed Internet Connects Producers to Markets
Elaine Kamarck of Harvard University has written about some of the ways a fast Internet connection can be a bridge out of poverty, such as by helping rural producers in developing countries avoid middlemen and connect to buyers directly.
"Programs in rural areas - agronegocios in El Salvador is one - are helping to link rural farmers with markets," she said.
"We're seeing this in the area of crafts. We're seeing it in a variety of economic development projects where the Internet is able to link producers to markets."
During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama said, "America should lead the world in broadband penetration and Internet access."
The details of how to do that, and on what timetable, may become clear in the months ahead.