After graduating from college in 2005, I spent a year living in a small fishing village in Aomori Prefecture, on the northern tip of Japan’s main island, Honshu. Aomori is one of Japan’s poorest and most rural prefectures and its defining characteristics are cold weather, mountains and a lot of snow (I often jokingly refer to it as the “Wyoming of Japan”). My apartment in Aomori was lacking a number of amenities that we Americans take for granted—air conditioning, central heating and insulation being the most notable among them. One thing that I did have, however, was a 100 Mbps fiber-optic Internet connection, for which I paid the equivalent of around $30 USD per month. Fast forward to today. Verizon, the first major U.S. carrier to roll out fiber-to-the-home, has started selling its FiOS Internet service in a handful of U.S. markets. Unfortunately, you can’t yet get FiOS in places like Wyoming—so far, deployments have been mostly limited to urban areas like New York City and the suburbs of Washington D.C. You also can’t get 100 Mbps service—FiOS currently tops off at 50 Mbps. And how much, you ask, does that 50 Mbps service cost? $144.95 per month.
There’s no question about it: the U.S. is falling behind in the broadband race. Not only is broadband service unavailable in many of this nation’s rural areas but the service that is available is often slow and expensive compared to services in other developed nations. As a result, we’re steadily dropping in international broadband penetration rankings. As you’ve likely heard, the U.S. fell to #15 in this year’s ITIF rankings (PDF link) and while those rankings have been criticized for not accounting for population density, the fact of the matter is that the U.S. has been gradually sinking for years in all sorts of broadband ranking studies.
So what’s the solution? According to a new report that The Baller Herbst Law Group prepared for e-NC, a government-funded organization that aims to spur broadband deployment and adoption in North Carolina, aggressive action is desperately needed. Just how aggressive? The report calls for all of America to have access to affordable 100 Mbps connections by 2012, with 1Gbps service to follow by 2015.
While there’s little doubt about the benefits that such fast, cheap and widely available Internet would have—for education, employment and the economy—the million-dollar question is how to achieve such a feat in just four short years. On Monday, the New America Foundation hosted an event where a series of panelists, including FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, attempted to answer that question. The general consensus was that a national broadband strategy is sorely needed and that the U.S. would do well to look closely at the techniques employed by broadband leaders like Japan, France and Sweden. To make a long story short, the effort will need to be a public-private partnership and some combination of federal subsidies, loans, tax breaks and grants will likely need to be employed. Obviously, encouraging broadband deployment is not going to come cheap. But as was the case with other major infrastructure build outs—whether the interstate highway system of the 1950s or the push for affordable electricity and telephony a century ago—an investment in critical infrastructure now will allow the U.S. to remain competitive with its international competitors in the long run.
Check out some highlights from the New America event below (click here for the full, two-hour long video):
Ultimately, cheap, fast and ubiquitous broadband has the potential to solve a number of related problems that the U.S. currently faces. You might recall that a few weeks ago, I wrote about Time Warner’s attempt to solve the Internet congestion problem by instituting “bandwidth caps” on its cable Internet service. Time Warner’s high-end cap, for customers who pay for the highest level of service, is 40GB a month downstream—a fairly inadequate limitation for anyone hoping to use their Internet connection for purposes such as streaming HD video. This week, a Japanese ISP, OCN (which is operated by NTT Communications, which is, in turn, partially owned by the Japanese government) announced that it too will implement a bandwidth cap: 30GB…a day…upstream. Of course, OCN can afford to do this because they have last-mile bandwidth to spare, thanks to 100 Mbps fiber-optic connections. Still, the announcement of such a generous cap almost seems like a joke made at the expense of U.S. Internet users. Perhaps that’s exactly what it is.