Remember the good-old 1990s, when you could make a pot of coffee while waiting for the screeching dial-up modem to connect to the Internet at a leisurely 9.6 kilobits per second?
Two decades later, the average American household's connection is 1,000 times speedier, at 9.8 megabits per second. But it needs to be faster.
Connectivity in the U.S. is slower, and costs more, than in most of the world. Many European and Asian countries are upgrading to 1 gigabit per second -- 100,000 times faster -- before most U.S. households have 100 megabits per second, the rate experts consider true high-speed Internet (1,000 megabits equals 1 gigabit).
The U.S. needs to catch up quickly, because a nation with inferior Internet service is destined to be less productive. A national campaign is needed to encourage installation of superfast fiber-optic networks like those available (or soon to be) in Kansas City; Austin, Texas; Omaha, Nebraska; Provo, Utah; and a few other cities.
If you count the sheer number of broadband connections (at least 256 kilobits per second), the U.S. looks pretty good: It outranks all others in the 34-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Yet on a per-capita basis, it's just average. About 100 million households don't subscribe to broadband; 19 million don't even have access to it.
Most of those broadband connections, at any rate, are old-fashioned coaxial cable (what the cable companies use), digital subscriber lines connected to a modem (what telephone companies provide), or wireless connections.
As for the average cost of broadband, the U.S. stands at 58 out of 90 countries -- well above the median. The typical U.S. household pays $89 a month.
Most alarming is that just 2.3 percent of U.S. homes have a fixed fiber-optic connection, the gold standard of Internet service. Even Turkey and Slovenia have a larger share.
Although the cable and phone companies keep squeezing more speed out of their copper wires, fiber is faster. It's capable of downloading and uploading data as fast as a gigabit per second, a speed that only Google Fiber and a few other Internet providers offer in the U.S. today.
You might think you'll never need a gigabit, but if your family or business plans to stream high-resolution videos, download large audio files, play games online with multiple players, create animated graphics or use video-chat software, you'll want at least 100 Mbps. With 3-D printing and the Internet of Things coming soon -- Web-connected door locks, thermostats, ovens, heart monitors and almost anything else that can be digitized -- 1 gig will be essential.
A national high-speed campaign should begin with a White House-led policy that encourages private-sector investment -- loan guarantees, faster write-offs and speedier permitting are among the options -- in fiber networks to compete with the cable industry, which now provides almost 60 percent of broadband Internet service. For three-fourths of households, the local cable company is the only choice.
Cable's dominance will be difficult to overcome. Most cable franchises are monopolies granted by municipalities. And installing a local fiber-optic network is a multi-billion-dollar proposition. Superfast networks pay for themselves over time, but someone has to finance their construction. Hundreds of U.S. cities are building or considering installing their own networks by floating bonds and using ingenious methods to lower costs, including by piggybacking on existing electrical grids, as Google Fiber has done in Kansas City. With public networks, municipalities can lease capacity to private service providers.
Google Fiber, which charges customers $70 a month, is showing the way. As it expands -- starting in Austin and Provo -- providers with slower service are forced to compete. Suddenly, AT&T is offering Austin residents a 1-gig network, and the much smaller Grande Communications, a telecommunications company, is looking to beat both AT&T and Google with cheaper 1-gig service.
A national fiber-optic campaign won't be cheap, but neither was the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, the rural electrification program in the 1930s and '40s, or the interstate highway system in the 1950s and '60s -- all needed as much in their day as high-speed Internet is now.
Congress can help. Cable and telephone companies have persuaded 20 states to enact legal barriers against public ownership of communications networks, including outright bans in Arkansas, Nebraska and Texas. Congress could override such anti-competitive statutes, which is what lawmakers probably meant to do in the 1996 Telecommunications Act until a 2004 Supreme Court interpretation opened the door to them.
The prism through which federal, state and local governments should view future Internet policy should be: Does the U.S. want to continue down the path in which one industry monopolizes the Internet with slow and expensive service, or does it want to create the conditions that encourage competition to provide faster, cheaper connections?
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