More Glimpses of Our Coming Neo-Liberal Dystopia: The Sluggish Internet Edition

While not as outrageous as the inability to reliably provide electrical power less than ten miles from the supposed Capital of the Free World, the reality is that the U.S. internet infrastructure sucks–and we have very limited goals in improving it (boldface mine):

Meanwhile, the U.S. is rapidly losing the global race for high-speed connectivity, as fewer than 8 percent of households have fiber service. And almost 30 percent of the country still isn’t connected to the Internet at all.

To fix this problem, a new approach is needed.

The first step is to decide what the goal of telecommunications policy should be. Network access providers — and the FCC — are stuck on the idea that not all Americans need high-speed Internet access. The FCC’s National Broadband Plan of March 2010 suggested that the minimum appropriate speed for every American household by 2020 should be 4 megabits per second for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads. These speeds are enough, the FCC said, to reliably send and receive e-mail, download Web pages and use simple video conferencing. The commission also said it wanted to ensure that, by 2020, at least 100 million U.S. homes have affordable access to download speeds of at least 100 Mbps and upload speeds of at least 50 Mbps.

Such rates wouldn’t be difficult. Comcast Corp. is already selling its 100-megabit service in the richest American communities, though it costs $200 a month. In a sense, the FCC adopted the cable companies’ business plan as the country’s goal. The commission’s embrace of asymmetric access — slower upload than download speeds — also serves the carriers’ interests: Only symmetric connections would allow every American to do business from home rather than use the Internet simply for high-priced entertainment.

Other countries have different goals. The South Korean government announced a plan to install 1 gigabit per second of symmetric fiber data access in every home by 2012. Hong Kong, Japan and the Netherlands are heading in the same direction. Australia plans to get 93 percent of homes and businesses connected to fiber. In the U.K., a 300 Mbps fiber-to-the-home service will be offered on a wholesale basis….

The current 4 Mbps Internet access goal is unquestionably shortsighted. It allows the digital divide to survive, and ensures that the U.S. will stagnate.

When state and local governments have attempted to provide better internet for their citizens, you’ll never guess what happened:

In 2004, the Lafayette utilities system decided to provide a fiber-to-the-home service. The new network, called LUS Fiber, would give everyone in Lafayette a very fast Internet connection, enabling them to lower their electricity costs by monitoring and adjusting their usage.

Push-back from the local telephone company, BellSouth Corp., and the local cable company, Cox Communications Inc., was immediate. They tried to get laws passed to stop the network, sued the city, even forced the town to hold a referendum on the project — in which the people voted 62 percent in favor. Finally, in February 2007, after five civil lawsuits, the Louisiana Supreme Court voted, 7-0, to allow the network.

From 2007 to mid-2011, people living in Lafayette saved $5.7 million on telecommunications services.

Since Lafayette went down this path, other communities have followed. According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a group that advocates for municipal fiber networks, these community-owned networks are generally faster, more reliable and cheaper than those of the private carriers, and provide better customer service

Since the city utility in Chattanooga, Tennessee, began offering fiber-to-the-home, some businesses in Knoxville — a hundred miles to the northeast — have been adding jobs in Chattanooga. Yet when the utility tried in 2011 to expand its fiber services to towns outside Chattanooga, the area’s private carriers initiated a lobbying assault and defeated a bill in the state legislature that would have allowed the expansion.

Also in 2011, six Time Warner lobbyists persuaded the North Carolina legislature to pass a “level playing field” bill making it impossible for cities in that state to create their own high-speed Internet access networks. Time Warner, which reported $26 billion in revenue in 2010, donated more than $6.3 million to North Carolina politicians over four years. Eighteen other states have laws that make it extremely difficult or impossible for cities to provide this service to their residents.

“…generally faster, more reliable and cheaper than those of the private carriers, and provide better customer service.” Who could have predicted that, as the kids used to say? And when in doubt, don’t change your business model, hire lobbyists.

It’s estimated that nationally upgrading our internet infrastructure to that found in other countries would cost $50 – 90 billion (pdf). Given the deficit hysteria sweeping the country, that’s not going to happen (we are foolishly cutting $200 billion of discretionary spending every years over the next ten years).

This is yet another reason why we can’t have nice things.

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3 Responses to More Glimpses of Our Coming Neo-Liberal Dystopia: The Sluggish Internet Edition

  1. joemac53 says:

    Internet and phone service are now “mature” industries. Increased profit comes from giving as little service as possible for the highest price. Also, given that cable TV in most areas is a monopoly (ten year contracts the norm), we have given cover to the most anti-consumer practices imaginable. I am old enough to imagine leaving the digital age, and going back to the stone ages.

  2. I agree with the big point, but the US’s low population density (both in aggregate and in its urban/suburban areas) does make problems like these more difficult. Greater population density must surely be an appropriate response if the cost his high enough. At some point it does just make more sense for the people to move to the services rather than the services to the people.

    • Min says:

      Whatever the virtues of cities, telecommuting is the wave of the future. I once lived in a small town in New Mexico and worked daily with people in New York, Connecticut, California, and Minnesota. Services to the people!

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