Whatever happened to the Information Superhighway? It was the big talk of the 90s, but now the United States has fallen to 16th place in the world for broadband deployment and availability, according to a survey by the Communication Workers of America. While we sink in the world rankings, service providers such as Comcast are slowing down the Internet connections of users who partake of too much of the touted “unlimited” service.
Meanwhile, the government is watching and listening to complaints of customers and users, but not doing much yet to stand in the way of the purveyors of Internet connectivity. Instead of expanding the pipes of the Internet, companies such as AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Time Warner have chosen to invest in acquiring smaller companies, amassing power and influence so they can dictate terms to the government and broadband users. They’d prefer to abolish Net neutrality and move toward a tiered service, vowing to control what we can see and hear on the Web, while leaving the services of competitors on a slower tier.
While these greedy corporations fight for control of the Internet and vie for the right to charge whatever prices they can extract, paying customers are trapped in a broadband world of lame connectivity that creeps toward obsolescence, without much recourse. With the future of the Internet and free speech at stake, what’s next?
In the U.S., broadband speeds aren’t increasing as much as in other developed countries, and in many areas, they’re stagnating. Compared to the rest of the world, the U.S. is no longer in the technological forefront (see graphic above). The average download speed in the U.S. is around 1.9mbps (megabits per second), while speeds of 100mbps are commonplace in Japan.
We pay more than other countries for that slow service, too. According to Ben Scott of public interest group Free Press and Public Knowledge, “A recent Small Business Administration study of broadband prices showed that small businesses in Massachusetts or Maine are likely to pay $40 or more for a 6mbps, consumer-grade cable modem. Their competitors in Japan are paying the same price for 100 megabits. This 15-fold speed advantage translates into more goods, better services, and higher efficiency.”
At that same hearing, FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin denounced such secret schemes. “They must be conducted in an open and transparent way,” he said to Comcast executives at the hearing. “While networks may have reasonable practices, they obviously cannot operate without taking some reasonable steps, but that does not mean they can arbitrarily block access to certain services.”
Why should service providers spend the money to build more capacity? They’re not motivated to do so, because with bandwidth scarce, they can charge more, and with artificial bottlenecks, they can force customers to pick and choose their Internet services much the same way they must do when selecting tiers of cable TV services. At the root of this problem is the lack of any real competition for the broadband dollar, with at most two choices in any given market (cable vs. telephone) and in many markets just one choice or none.
Also, FCC Chairman Martin alluded to taking strong action against Comcast, but when we asked if there would be further hearings on the issue, his office acknowledged our question but hasn’t responded yet.
The pending legislation and FCC inquiry are both good signs that the U.S. Government is getting involved, but we think more action is required, treating this need for enhanced broadband access and speed with the same urgency as the construction of the Interstate Highway System or the moon landings.
If that ever happens, super broadband networks could be easily sold like local phone service, offered on a truly unlimited basis even with giant HDTV movies streaming within. Here’s a novel idea: If there must to be caps on excessive usage, place them only at the highest levels, say 1Gbps for 24 hours a day, to be sure those who are running servers can’t use a consumer service.