Let’s face it: Internet service, Internet access and Internet speeds in the US are really bad and really expensive. When you step outside your nice warm WiFi cocoon at home or at work, that’s when the point really gets driven home. And if you travel domestically, well, we’ve all been there. Hotel WiFi is usually some combination of bad, expensive, unavailable or unreliable. Why do you get charged $15/day to go online? Do you get charged every time you flush the toilet or turn on a light?
Before you accuse me of prattling on about a distinctly First World problem, keep your powder dry. The Internet is not a luxury. It is a utility like water, gas or electricity. We are rapidly reaching the point in society where you simply cannot live your life without the Internet.
How did we get here? I’ll tell you in a minute.
What can we do about it? I have to say, I really don’t know. Any suggestions?
First, how did we get here.
If we can agree that access to the Internet is no different than access to running water or electricity, then this little bit of history is instructive. In the 1880s, electric companies were privately owned and, logically, went to where the money was: big cities and the homes of the wealthy. The rest got spotty service, or none at all. By the 1920s, nearly 90% of the electricity distribution in the US was controlled by a very few companies, who provided crappy service while gouging their customers. (Is this starting to sound familiar?)
Communities across the country began to form their own local utilities and now electricity is a regulated public utility, and no one longs for the days when only big cities and rich people could turn the lights on and off.
So what happened to the Internet? Since 1996 it has been a deadly combination of lack of foresight, lack of regulation and lack of competition. The FCC, at one time, felt that deregulating communications in all its forms (cable TV, cellphones, satellite, land line phones) would open the way to competition, lower prices and better services. And for a little while, they were right. But a big problem in the US is infrastructure. Sometimes being first can hurt you. (What’s the joke about a pioneer being the guy with the arrows in his back? Something like that.) While we laid miles of copper wiring and phone lines to bring service to our homes at huge expense during the mid-20th century , many nations did not. Many so-called Third World (and even some First World ones) laid out on the whole copper wire thing, and when fiber became available, they leap frogged onto this new technology.
The end result is the US is saddled with aging infrastructure that is prohibitively expensive to upgrade.
On the competition side of things, well, there basically isn’t any. Just like electricity in the 1880s, so went Internet access in the 90s and up to today. The great myth in our country is that anyone can start a business and compete with the big guys. Really? So where are the community-based ISPs? Yes, I know they exist, but not on a level that makes any kind of difference to the majority of Americans. With the completion of the Comcast-NBC merger, you now have the “communications equivalent of Standard Oil.” It is the country’s largest cable operator, largest high-speed (ahem) ISP, third largest phone company, owner of 11 regional sports networks and now the owner of NBC-Universal and their cable and broadcast networks, 25 TV stations, 7 production studios and various online properties. So now the biggest service provider of content also creates and owns that content and decides how and when you get access to that content. It’s the Golden Rule: whoever has the gold, makes the rules.
I have no hope that Google’s efforts to lay fiber in Kansas City will move much beyond that test market. As a nation, we do not seem to understand or care that information and connectivity are the economic drivers of the foreseeable future. It is just simply not a priority, and all of us suffer. How many times have you heard someone say that they never make phone calls anymore? Everything is email or text or some other type of post to a shared online network? Well, that requires access and reliability. For readers old enough to remember when we all had land lines only, the one thing you could say about them was that you never lost service. When was the last time you felt that way about your internet or cell phone service?
I am wary of suggesting that the government get more involved in regulating this utility the way they regulate the others. But something needs to be done if we don’t want to fall further behind, because make no mistake- we are falling behind. Shitty internet is a non-trivial problem and the sanctioning by Congress and the FCC of monopolies like Comcast only exacerbates the problem. For all those who love to say things like, “America has the best (fill in the blank) in the world,” how can we stand for this? Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Latvia and Romania are the 5 fastest. The US hovers somewhere around 14th. Yes, we have a greater land mass, yes, we have more rural areas, yes, yes, yes, excuse, excuse, excuse.
If you had to pay extra for electricity and water every time you checked into a hotel, or if you only got service if you lived in New York, LA or some other big city, you wouldn’t stand for it, would you? We have the horrible combination of lack of real competition, lack of regulation, and lack of reliable service.
I started this post by saying I don’t know what the answer is to this problem. Do you? I would love to hear them.
Sources: Captive Audience by Susan P. Crawford: http://amzn.com/B00AMYGFXK
US Internet Users Pay More for Slower Service: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-12-27/u-s-internet-users-pay-more-for-slower-service.html