Should connecting to the Internet in the United States be a battle in 2013? The short answer: probably not.
For students in Ann Arbor living off campus, capitalism begets two options for home Internet. It’s choice between companies both famous for their incompetence: Comcast, with such a dismal reputation that they’ve slowly rebranded as Xfinity while hoping you didn’t notice, and AT&T, which seemed to think I was irrational for attempting to trade money in exchange for Internet in my apartment (it took three months, but we sorted it out).
The Internet market in the United States is in disarray. Because laying thousands of miles of wiring and infrastructure is expensive, a natural oligopoly occurs, but the market that has resulted isn’t best serving the country. With little competition, the companies haven’t been challenged to improve nearly any aspect of their business. Customer service — or lack thereof — aside, the state of U.S. Internet speed and accessibility has broad implications for our nation’s competitiveness and reflects an underdeveloped federal strategy.
In 2011, a study done by Netflix implies a suggestion for those who just want to binge watch “30 Rock” without endless buffering: Move to Canada. When the world’s largest videostreaming company measured Internet speeds, it found Canadian top and average download speeds beat the United States.
Our Northern neighbor isn’t the only one that has us beat. For truly fast Internet, you’ll need to leave the continent. In NetIndex’s current rankings of worldwide Internet speeds, the United States sits in 34th place with 13.04-megabit-per-second downloads, one spot behind Canada. The top 10 includes Hong Kong (44.71 mbps), South Korea (34.72 mbps), and Switzerland (30.16 mbps) and the European Union with the best overall average.
The geographic concentration of high-speed access is also cause for concern. Private companies have little incentive to wire rural parts of America, which is a disadvantage for health care, schools and businesses in these regions. President Barack Obama’s stimulus attempted to address this through the $4-billion Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. However, a recent article in The New York Times highlighted that the program has had trouble getting off the ground in many states and is plagued with waste and fraud where it has.
Policymakers and Internet advocates have long recognized this impediment to U.S. competitiveness. In 2013, a business is as fast as its Internet, and a city’s attractiveness to new startups is indisputably linked to high-speed availability.
An example: When Google decided to have cities compete to be guinea pigs in its fiber experiment, it’s obvious why officials in Topeka, Kan. changed the city’s name to “Google” as part of their bid. The economic benefit of the fiber optics, which offer one-gigabit-per-second downloads, spurs the imagination and innovation of entrepreneurs. The startup scene in Kansas City, Kan., which became the first Google Fiber hub, has already been invigorated.
And while providers tout high-speed broadband connections in multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns, availability is limited and price prohibitive — nearly a third of Americans opt not to pay for in-home, high-speed Internet. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 70 percent of Americans have high-speed connectivity. South Korea: 94 percent.
In the 1990s, South Korea prioritized Internet literacy and connectivity — policies that have proven impressively effective. While South Korean youth have a well-documented Internet addiction and population density plays a part, the United States needs to develop a similar long-term strategy so its citizens can build the next Facebooks and Googles and, more importantly, watch 70 episodes of “The West Wing” in a row without issue.
For starters: Push for open access to allow companies to share basic infrastructure, curb the 20-state trend of wealthy providers lobbying to prohibit local competitive markets, and invest heavily in infrastructure and providing low-interest loans to do so. Introducing competition into the stagnant market could have incalculable impact. Programs like the stimulus-funded one are a good start, but one-time investments aren’t a substitute for a clear roadmap.
Americans shouldn’t be picking between the lesser of two evils for a service that’s intrinsic to daily life and economic prosperity. The United States shouldn’t be content with 34th place. As a nation, we’ve long seen the value of connecting people, places and ideas. We must recognize that, like our bridges and roads, our cyber infrastructure is falling into disrepair and needs attention.
Andrew Weiner is the editor in chief.
Correction appended: The article misstated that bytes are the typical measure used for consumer Internet speeds. The typical measure is bits.