Why you should care
Because the Internet affects not only your Netflix streaming speed, but also GDP.
You know the dial-up connection your grandparents use to get on the Internet — the one that sounds like R2-D2 being fed through a meat grinder? It seems antiquated, but when it comes to Americans getting online, access hasn’t advanced much beyond that. Much of the rich world, including countries like Estonia and Slovakia, look at the United States’ Internet chops and guffaw.
Nowhere is the difference of Internet capability more pronounced than between the U.S. and South Korea. The Asian nation is almost 70 percent wired with fiber optic cabling, compared to a pitiful
percent for the United States
Fiber optics work by pulsing light through glass the size of a human hair — it’s the latest and greatest in ultra browser power. It allows streaming to work 100 times faster than the average connection in America. And South Korea isn’t the only one blowing past the United States when it comes to fiber connectivity. Japan, Estonia, Norway, Sweden and Slovakia are all leaving the U.S. in the dust, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The U.S. used to lead the world in telecom infrastructure, now “it’s not even close to the top 10 in Internet use,” says Rudolf van der Berg, an economist at the OECD.
Fiber is future-proof.
— Kelly Mason, manager of Global Communications and Public Affairs at Google
But, how? Turns out the self-proclaimed capitalist haven isn’t very competitive when it comes to telecommunications. In fact, it’s pretty damn monopolistic, as one high-profile court battle recently showed. In most places, Americans choose between a cable company, like Comcast, or a telephone provider, like Verizon. In others, you’ve just got one choice. That’s because cable giants such as Comcast or Time Warner dominated select municipalities, which was required to build sufficient infrastructure, experts say. Not until the 1992 Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act did the partitioning stop, but the lines were already drawn.
Ah, but competition is on the horizon. Particularly from Google, which is moving in fast to get fiber to the masses. Already, the company that runs your life online has brought fiber to Kansas City, Missouri; Austin, Texas; and Provo, Utah. Four more are on the way: Atlanta; Charlotte, North Carolina; Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; and Nashville, Tennessee. Research shows that areas with fiber get a boost in gross domestic product (GDP) of about 1.1 percent. This equals $1.4 billion for the 14 communities that were studied by the Fiber to the Home Council. The big upshot is that fiber can’t be overloaded — which means you can watch Netflix while streaming the Super Bowl and futzing around with your emails. In other words: “Fiber is future-proof,” says Kelly Mason, manager of Global Communications and Public Affairs at Google.
Of course, we don’t need Google to save our sorry butts. The government has its ways of lighting a fire under telecom behemoths. The Federal Communications Commission just changed the definition of broadband: Only connection speeds faster than 25 Mbps will count — up from 4 Mbps. Seems arbitrary, but it should force companies to speed up their service in order to legally call it “broadband.” And it’s not just good news for Internet connections. In Sweden, mobile companies use existing fiber networks to tack on 4G LTE coverage to places they’d never dream of going before, says van der Berg. Cooperation — interesting concept, huh, America?