Saturday, April 16, 2005

U.S. Lagging on Broadband

"Today, nearly all Japanese have access to 'high-speed' broadband, with an average connection time 16 times faster than in the United States - for only about $22 a month."

Many people, myself included, automatically assume that the United States is on the forefront of the Internet revolution in terms of technological development and use. While this is true in many cases, Thomas Friedman's wake-up call in Friday's New York Times shows that when it comes to high-speed Internet connections, we are being outstripped by countries like Japan, South Korea, and even China.

This news is particularly discouraging because it was only about a year ago when, in the early stages of the presidential campaign, Bush was touting affordable broadband access for all Americans by 2007. A very ambitious goal, and despite certain deregulatory actions taken to facilitate the expansion of broadband, this vision seems far from being realized. The problem is not limited to rural or poor areas. Even back home in my suburban Maryland neighborhood, DSL access is unavailable, and cable-modem Internet service runs around $50 per month.

Telecom companies should be thinking more aggressively about expanding and improving broadband service. The government should be encouraging this, and providing incentives to these companies for the proliferation of high-tech solutions. Or, the government itself could take on some of the burden. The city of Philadelphia recently announced that it will spend $15 million to create a city-wide wireless Internet zone, providing access on the cheap to subscribers for under $20 per month. This kind of tech-savvy action captures my imagination. It's a perfect example of the kind of active approach we should be taking in order to make sure that in the digital age, we are not followers.

A quote in the article about Philly's Wi-Fi plans said "in today's world having access to the Internet is as important as keeping your house or feeding your family." A hyperbolic statement, yes, but the importance of connectedness--especially in the vastly more competitive world Tom Friedman envisions--is hard to understate. The cost of making advances on these technological fronts may seem expensive now, but it is an investment in the future that is definitely worth it. (Surely we don't want our chief contribution to the "Information Superhighway" be the "emoticon"?) The U.S. may have fallen a little behind the curve, but with our infrastructure and innovation, there's no reason we have to be riding the coattails of East Asia when it comes to the Internet revolution!


Jack Nargundkar said...

US broadband deployments have been hampered by cumbersome regulation over the years. ILECs (incumbent phone companies) were forced to lease their DSL lines to competitive LECs under archaic rules such as UNE (unbundled network element) in the hope of fostering broadband competition. However, the FCC deemed this necessary only in the DSL domain and not for cable networks (which were seen to be providing "information services" as opposed to "telecommunication services"). A couple of years ago, the FCC ruled that packet-switched networks (like IP) were no longer bound by unbundling provisions. In a more recent ruling, the FCC also eased up on its UNE restrictions. In fact, ILECs will be exempt from unbundling obligations for their FTTH (Fiber to the Home) networks. Once the phone companies have figured out the economics and begin deployment of FTTH services, we should be in broadband nirvana! But given the speed at which the ILECs have traditionally moved, I wouldn't hold my breath.

Nick said...

One thing to keep in mind here is that the United States has a far lower population density than countries like Japan and South Korea, meaning proportionally larger segments of our population (Peter Russo, for example) are too isolated for cable or DSL to be convenient options for them. This obviously doesn't excuse the fact that China, a developing country, may have better internet service than we do.