When it comes to the digital arms race, the United States has fallen woefully behind. Depending on how high speed Internet is defined and measured, the nation struggles to make it to the top ten list, and often falls even further; into the top 20, and sometimes even lower. Worldwide, South Korea dominates the Internet game, with broadband penetration approaching 98 percent, and the U.S. lags at just 70 percent; though estimates say it may reach 75 percent by 2017. The United States appears to be struggling because it cannot resolve three key factors: telecommunications monopolies, infrastructure problems, and net neutrality.
Defining “broadband” can be a challenging game, and an easily-massaged definition, defending on the goal of the person doing the talking. The FCC considers four Mbps down and one up to be “broadband,” a laughable definition considering the high load of streaming video, multimedia websites, and other data suckers. This issue is particularly acute for multi-device households, where competition for bandwidth can be a significant issue. Tom Wheeler, FCC chair, freely admits that this definition needs to be updated, though telecoms are fighting him on it.
In a Pew survey, respondents were asked: “At home, do you connect to the Internet through a dial-up telephone line, or do you have some other type of connection, such as a DSL-enabled phone line, a cable TV modem, a wireless connection, or a fiber optic connection such as FIOS?” If “broadband” is “dial-up” versus “everything else,” broadband penetration statistics can start to look very good, but as anyone who’s used systems like satellite Internet knows, the truth on the ground is often ugly. It can be difficult or impossible to download large files, access streaming content, or even navigate the Web on painfully slow connections treated as “broadband.”
The U.S. can’t seem to decide on what “broadband” is, which is where the problem begins, but it gets worse.
1) A really big game of Monopoly
In terms of realtime upload and download speed, the United States is beaten out by nearly every nation in Europe, along with South Korea, Japan, and even New Zealand, along with some nations in the Americas, like Mexico and Canada. In many of these nations, there’s a reason for that: The government has prioritized competition by telecoms, compelling them to fight for market share. That results in pressure for high speeds and affordability (the U.S. is also one of the most expensive places in the world for Internet access), because if companies can’t keep pace, they lose out.
In the United States, five companies dominate the market: Comcast, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, Verizon, and CenturyLink. They account for 70 percent of the broadband market, with no incentive to compete. In fact, in many U.S. cities, they benefit from duopolies, where subscribers have the choice between just two companies, with cable winning out in the long term when it comes to onboarding new customers (currently it controls just over 50 percent of the market).
In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission in 2002 reclassified high-speed Internet access as an information service, which is unregulated, rather than as telecommunications, which is regulated. Its hope was that Internet providers would compete with one another to provide the best networks. That didn’t happen. The result has been that they have mostly stayed out of one another’s markets.
Deregulation of the Internet may have been one of the most catastrophic decisions the United States has ever made in terms of creating equal information access online for citizens. Once deregulated, the industry can be very difficult to control; and were the FCC and federal government to attempt to reclassify Internet services again, they would likely face extreme opposition from the Big Five, who have a vested interest in the status quo. Their opposition can be evidenced in their fight against the reclassification proposed by President Obama in part of his fight for net neutrality.
2) That’s a lot of ground to cover
Comparing the U.S. to the rest of the world, though, isn’t entirely fair. While the nation does have a serious broadband penetration problem, it’s complicated by an issue that’s difficult to surmount: The U.S. is a big country. Covering the entire nation with comprehensive high-speed service is a huge infrastructure commitment. The nation is already struggling to maintain outdated copper wired connections and cable systems, and it’s scrambling to improve infrastructure to upgrade Internet services, particularly in rural areas.
Two of the most successful operators when it comes to this area of expanding broadband services are, oddly enough, regional governments and Google. The company has enough funds to dedicate to creating high-speed fiber connections that it’s building up a formidable broadband network, which is how Kansas City got citywide broadband built on a fiber backbone. Meanwhile, cities can afford to install fiber, or to upgrade telecommunications as they do road work and perform other routine maintenance that requires digging and retrofitting (one of the big cost barriers with fiber is the need to trench it).
For dense U.S. cities, expanding broadband access by encouraging competition and upgrading infrastructure is doable, though daunting. However, that still leaves much of rural America blowing in the wind. Rural regions don’t even enjoy the existing 70 percent broadband penetration (such as it is, according to the FCC definition) because of their remote nature. Creating Internet options for these communities is much more complicated, with few telecommunications companies willing to enter the rural market because the rewards are minimal; the customer base is small, the cost involved in upgrading and rehauling equipment is high, and maintenance could be prohibitive. These aren’t issues confronted by small nations with densely packed communities; Germany, for example, can’t be fairly compared to the United States.
However, the United States needs to rethink its approach to Internet, a service widely regarded as a luxury. In an interview with NPR, law professor Susan Crawford, speaking about Internet service as a necessity much like a utility, explained that:
[T]he only way you get there is through government involvement in this market. That’s how we did it for the telephone, that’s how we did it for the federal highway system, and we seem to have forgotten that when it comes to these utility basic services, we can’t create a level playing field for all Americans or indeed compete on the world stage without having some form of government involvement.
3) This Web is nothing neutral
Net neutrality plays a role in this too. As long as providers can charge subscribers, and the companies they work with, differing fees for different speeds, and as long as they can engage in throttling and other speed/data caps, the United States will never truly have universal broadband access. When providers control the material consumers are able to upload, and see, and the speed at which they see it, broadband service isn’t unfettered, even if companies like Comcast advertise set broadband speeds; is a service really 50 Mbps if not every site loads at that speed?
Writing for the Congressional Research Service, Angele A. Gilroy says: “While there is no single accepted definition of ‘net neutrality,’ most agree that any such definition should include the general principles that owners of the networks that compose and provide access to the Internet should not control how consumers lawfully use that network, and they should not be able to discriminate against content provider access to that network.”
Net neutrality poses a number of threats to Internet freedom, innovation, and entrepreneurship, but it’s also a significant risk to the problem of broadband access in the United States. Broadband should mean equal access to everything, across the board. If it doesn’t, users are missing out on the services they deserve; imagine data caps on robot surgeons used in rural areas to expand health care options, for example. Patients might not appreciate buffering time with the arms of a delicate, and potentially dangerous, machine hovering over an open incision while someone watches Netflix in the break room.
Crawford suggests that one solution to the problem may be to skip the middleman: “There are two routes out of this puzzle for the United States: One is greater oversights, setting a national standard, making sure that everybody gets high-speed fiber access. The other is just leave these guys behind and build better alternative fiber networks in each city in America.” It might sound like heresy to free market capitalists, but it’s not necessarily a bad idea. Cities and governments creating their own broadband infrastructure can install and offer it at much more competitive prices, akin to those offered for city water and sewer in many regions of the United States. Notably, both of these services could be treated as luxuries—but to most Americans, and, thankfully, cities, they’re considered basic utilities.
However, while the United States is confronting problems with wired services, mobile broadband is growing by leaps and bounds. In this area, the United States ranks very highly, given the number of mobile devices per household and how many people use them for partial or total Internet access. An estimated 31 percent of Americans use their mobile devices as their primary method of Internet access, which could be a game-changer in the conversation about broadband. What if, like many African nations, we skipped the wiring and went straight to cellphones?
Photo via Adrian Sampson/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed