Posts Tagged ‘ broadband ’

Will the Internet remain an “all you can download” buffet?

Last week I wrote about the incoming FCC plan for universal broadband access across the U.S., an expensive and somewhat controversial initiative that begs the question of whether high speed Internet access is not just a privilege but a right.

The plan has been hit by fierce pushback from major cable companies since it was announced Tuesday. No surprise there. A major provision of the FCC’s plan is to auction off spectrum once used for broadcast in order to expand wireless networks to rural areas not serviced by the private sector. The broadcasters who now own that spectrum aren’t about to just give it up for nothing.

Ironically enough, I found myself out to dinner with a group of Elon faculty and communications professionals that included a Time Warner Cable regional executive on the day the FCC’s plan was announced.  Naturally, he didn’t see the FCC’s current plan as the answer to the issue of broadband access. Nor was he crazy about Google’s initiative to poke its head into the ISP business by laying out “dark fiber” cables that can offer much faster access in urban areas.

But he didn’t dismiss the issue either, instead proposing that the problem with high-speed Internet isn’t one of access, but of demand. ISPs can extend broadband to rural areas but aren’t likely to get everyone to sign up, either because they can’t afford it or don’t see the value in the service. Even some in favor of universal access acknowledge, as Slate tech wrtier Farhad Manjoo does at the end of this piece, that only about two-thirds of those with access to broadband actually sign up. If the government can find a way to subsidize the cost through some form of tax credits, it would be easier for private ISPs to bring broadband to more of the country.

This concept is similar in spirit to one proposed in Jonathan Zittrain’s “The Future of the Internet: and how to stop it,” a book I’m now reading for class that offers a thorough look at how online access has been shaped through the decades. Zittrain is highly critical of non-generative models that limit what a consumer can gather online (think AOL 15 years ago or perhaps the iPad today). But he does point out that ISPs who wall off parts of the Internet could subsidize the cost of access by charging websites or search engines for a spot in their “walled gardens” of content accessible to customers. The revenue stream would allow the ISP to offer access at reduced rates, or maybe even for free.

Proponents of net neutrality probably cringe at this thought. The Internet should be open and free for all, they argue, without restrictions on content. That’s laudable in spirit, but the reality is that someone has to pay for the high speed access. If the government can’t afford to pay for the infrastructure, and it’s not profitable for the private sector, than the only solution is charging websites themselves for distribution. As long as consumers know they’re only getting a la carte portions of the Internet, they might be OK not having the all you can eat model. It’s better than having no access at all, which is the status quo for far too many in this country right now.

Not all Internet connections are created equal

internet_speeds

Anyone still remember the dark days of dial-up? Back then logging onto the Internet meant a wait of 30 seconds plus, and every new website gave you enough time to grab a drink or use the bathroom while it loaded.

We might think this level of (dis)connectivity is behind us for good. Most U.S. residents now live in areas where “high speed” access is available, often from multiple providers. But just because something qualifies as “high speed” doesn’t mean it’s fast. Average download speeds vary tremendously across the country. In some cases it’s because there’s simply not a good network in place. Other times it’s because part of the state has very low population density and installing broadband is considered too expensive for private Internet service providers.

So where does your state stack up? The Communications Workers of America has tabulated download speeds from hundreds of thousands of tests. I took their data and made the map above to illustrate what regions have the fastest Internet access. Check out their site yourself for more detailed information, including breakdowns by county.

This isn’t just an issue of convenience. A relatively slow connection (regardless if it’s called “high speed”) dictates what users are able to do on the Internet. With U.S. speeds as a whole much faster than say, five years ago, it’s now common for websites to have embedded video, audio, high-resolution photos and animations — all of which take a long time to load. If your connection is slower than the rest of the country, you’re effectively segregated in the tasks and services you can accomplish online.

In other words, there’s still a form of dial-up in spirit if you’re network is slow. Only this time around, others aren’t waiting. They’re getting things done at work and at home while you’re just trying to upload a basic file.

Fortunately there are a number of developments — some driven by profit, some by charity — that are bringing more residents into the fast lane. I discuss them in greater detail in the digital divide research paper I’ve just completed. But at least for now those with a speedy Internet connection should recognize that it’s something for which to feel fortunate.