The Great American Broadband Debacle

The Great American Broadband Debacle

Why you should care

Because the future called, and it can’t find the U.S. on a map.

One stop that’s often overlooked on tours of great American landmarks is 3420 Boelter Hall, a narrow, fluorescent-lit room on the campus of UCLA now better known as the Kleinrock Internet History Center. It’s the spot where, on October 29, 1969, the first message was transmitted on ARPANET, the precursor to the global Internet.

Fast-forward 44 years, and the Web has transformed our lives in unfathomable ways. But a strange phenomenon has unfolded along the way: even as technologies improve, the U.S. has fallen behind other countries in both the speed and affordability of its Internet access.

By ceding ground on Internet speed, the nation is cutting itself off from untold innovations.

An example: Someone living in Paris can get broadband Internet bundled with phone and TV service for around $35 per month, which sounds like a sweet deal even before you add in the fact that it’s fiber-optic broadband with download speeds up to 100 Mbps.

In the States, few places even offer 100 Mbps service. City dwellers buying those same triple-play packages are usually looking at 10, 20, maybe 30 Mbps — and paying well above $100 for the privilege.

Look at average Internet speeds across entire countries, and it’s a similar story. South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong have seized the lead, but even places like Latvia and the Czech Republic outperform the U.S.

So, how did things go so wrong? The biggest culprit, tech analysts say, is the dearth of competition in U.S. markets. Even companies that are ostensible rivals, like Verizon and Comcast, have struck deals to carry each other’s services, which means most consumers have few or no alternatives to Big Cable.

As a result, there’s little market pressure to upgrade the country’s sprawling and substandard infrastructure. Why pour money into improvements when customers will keep paying top dollar for what they have? In Europe, “unbundling” policies that require telecom giants to rent out part of their network capacity have created a dynamic and fiercely competitive playing field. In the States, an army of lobbyists has been deployed to make sure the field doesn’t budge.

To be clear, this isn’t just about boosting the number of Netflix shows Americans can stream simultaneously. By ceding ground on speed, critics say, the nation is cutting itself off from untold innovations. Most customers couldn’t currently come close to using the full bandwidth of powerful fiber broadband, but that’s partly because they haven’t yet had a chance to explore its potential. As Blair Levin, who heads up an effort to bring gigabit-speed broadband to college towns, puts it, “Consumers never ask for products they don’t know about; innovation comes from the unknown. No consumer in 1900 asked for a radio, a television or a personal computer.”

Then there are the more immediate threats. With the rise of the digital economy, jobs and educational opportunities are moving online, and without speedy and reliable Web access, U.S. workers could lose out in the global marketplace. In The Fine Print: How Big Companies Use “Plain English” to Rob You Blind, David Cay Johnston warns that the number and quality of future American jobs hinges in large part on whether the U.S. gets back in the game “or continues to slip further behind countries like South Korea, with their lower wage scales and superior Internet.”

For the millions of Americans who can’t afford broadband at all, cost is a far bigger concern than speed. The hefty price tags for even basic plans fuel the persistent “digital divide,” and mobile broadband, which some hoped would narrow the gap, has proven slower and less versatile (imagine writing a research paper for school on a phone). Susan Crawford, the author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly in the New Gilded Age, argues that broadband is now more crucial to everyday life in America than phone service — so essential, in fact, that it should be a public utility. In her view, by granting cable giants so much control of the system, the United States is failing its most vulnerable citizens.

Without speedy and reliable Web access, U.S. workers could lose out in the global marketplace.

There are some rays of light in the American broadband landscape. The 1 gigabit service offered by Google Fiber in Kansas City has spawned a number of similar local projects. “Gig City” Chattanooga has restyled itself as a next-generation tech hub, and even some small towns have invested in building their own municipal fiber-optic systems. Among big cities, San Francisco stands out for its unusually diverse broadband market, which has driven speeds up and prices down. Clearly there would be big challenges in rolling out cutting-edge broadband on a national scale, but the basic technology and know-how are there.

In other words, we have the way. Time to rustle up the will.

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