Spoutin' Off: U.S. broadband lags behind other countries

By Michael Rau

July 7, 2008

I suppose that anyone who writes a regular column on specific subject matter is going to find themselves occasionally revisiting topics. Such is the case this week.

Almost a year ago, I wrote a column (http://dailypress.asoundidea.com/Columns/073007.html) comparing the cost and speed of broadband Internet service in the United States with that in other developed countries. I had hoped to spark a discussion as to why the U.S. lagged so far behind most of the rest of the first world - particularly considering the extreme negative impact it's having and will have on the U.S. economy, not to mention national security.

Since that column ran, things have actually gotten worse. Instead of moving in the direction of increasing capacity and reducing price, American broadband providers are now proposing instituting limits on the amount of bandwidth consumers can use, while essentially raising prices. Now some broadband service providers have announced plans to try applying such limits in test markets.

I have to admit that there is a certain logic to their concerns. People who still abuse peer-to-peer file sharing capabilities to transfer large files consume an inordinate amount of bandwidth when compared to the average user.

The problem with restricting bandwidth across an entire customer base instead of targeting the file sharers who are mucking things up is that it may utterly kill all development of Web-based delivery of media (a method of entertainment distribution I've championed for years), stifle the use of video-conferencing (thus requiring more energy-consuming travel), cripple large corporate networks, and leave this country in the dust in terms of world-wide telecommunications capabilities.

The current major domestic broadband providers all say the only way they can significantly increase capacity profitably is to be given an unprecedented amount of control over what amounts to a public utility. Unless and until that happens, they plan to hold their collective breath like petulant children until they get their way. This is what the whole debate over so-called “net neutrality” is all about.

The ongoing evolution of wireless broadband promises to offer some additional degree of competition. But I believe there is an unspoken collusion amongst U.S. broadband providers to keep rates artificially high, and with virtually no consumer protection provided by our government, I fear that the same big corporations will gain control of the majority of the wireless spectrum, too. How that will affect meaningful competition should be obvious.

I don't know about you but I'm tired of paying $50.00 a month for what in this day and age amounts to a basic Internet connection - especially when you consider that consumers in Japan and Korea, countries that have comparable standards of living to ours, pay as little as $5 per month for much faster service.

Similar services in Europe don't show quite as much contrast, but are generally still many times faster and cheaper than in the U.S. (Latin America lags behind).

Don't believe me? It's easy enough to discover for yourself (it's not called the World Wide Web for nothing). Just go on Google and look (note that if you can't read a page because of the language, Google can probably translate for you).

Should we conclude that American companies are this much less efficient? Or could it be that they're just that much greedier?

I don't want to get into the whole free market argument, but I feel it's time for the government to step in before these companies cripple our economy and weaken our national security.

Perhaps this manifests in the form of allocating a certain part of the wireless broadband spectrum to new competition. Maybe it comes in the form of charging Broadband providers rent for use of public right-of-ways and public airwaves, and them refunding those fees to consumers. I'm sure others have better ideas than me.

But for now, from here in Newport News, Va., I publicly challenge all current domestic broadband service providers to explain why their services are so much slower and more expensive than in most of the rest of the civilized world.

If these mega-corporations cannot or will not provide a reasonable explanation, I implore our lawmakers to step in and intervene before these companies cause irreparable damage to our overriding national interests.

Maybe this comes in the form of greasing the skids for these foreign firms to come to the United States and offer their services. Heck - they could come here, charge half as much as our current providers, and still make oodles of profit based on their existing business models.

I would guess that if our domestic companies faced actual competition, they'd start singing a different tune very quickly.

I cannot reiterate how strongly I feel our most critical national interests are at stake here.

If you really consider yourself to be patriotic, you can't help but be concerned about how this issue is putting America at risk of falling behind the rest of the world.

In this election year, it's time to ask your chosen representatives or candidates which is more important: Offering aid and comfort to corporate profiteers or protecting our nation's economy and security.

Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.

Copyright © 2008, Daily Press