Yesterday, internet services company Akamai released its annual “State of the Internet” report, which tracks the various changes in internet speeds and penetration across the globe. When it came to broadband speeds, the US pulled in at 14th place, behind smaller countries such as Germany and South Korea.
Before the alarmists clamor about the loss of the American technological edge, it’s important to remember several things. Firstly, the electrical and telephonic infrastructure is considerably newer in small countries than it is here, and the reason for lower internet speeds is similar to the disparity between the European, Asian and Middle Eastern standard of 220V electricity, and the North American 110V electrical anomaly. Ours is simply older than theirs. The backing infrastructure – much of it slow copper wire – sometimes precludes carriers from offering higher speeds. Similarly, it is far easier to enmesh a small country in high speed internet, than it is to stretch broadband across a 3,000-mile wide nation. And lastly, these scores represent an average, with many small, isolated cities in the Midwest and South altering the otherwise higher numbers of the two coasts, and larger cities. But it’s not just practical limitations.
Susan Crawford has an excellent Op-Ed in The New York Times about the profoundly anticompetitive and regressive actions taken by the cable giants, namely, AT&T, Verizon, TimeWarner and Comcast. Crawford writes that these near-monopolies deliver subpar speeds at overblown costs, and use the profits to lobby Congress for less restrictive regulations, and spurious challenges to the FCC. For a comprehensive history of AT&T and telecommunications regulation, I highly suggest Tim Wu’s 2011 The Master Switch, which provides superb context for much of the fiber development, mobile wars and internet stagnation extant today. Crawford also recently published Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, which outlines her arguments at much greater length.
In similar news, Google recently applied for a license to build its own wireless network around Mountain View, California. What would make this endeavor more interesting would be if the federal government played a little favoritism, and offered to partly subsidize Google’s rollout of fiber optic networks in other midwestern cities, as the company did on its own in Kansas City, Kansas, last year. In much the same way that TimeWarner, Verizon or AT&T hold monopolistic control over data lines and territory, it might be advantageous for Google to be granted temporary incentives to build out pipes to carry its content. Doing so would serve as an effective shot across the bow of unmotivated cable companies. And besides, these posts would upload that much faster.