Spoutin' Off: American Internet speeds lag behind

By Michael Rau

July 30, 2007

In our last exciting episode, we talked about video-on-demand (VOD) and Joost (and thanks to all of you who sent me invitations to download the app). In that column, I specifically talked about the need to significantly increase available bandwidth and transmission speed over the Internet before I thought VOD would really come of age.

Since then, I've come across a couple of interesting tidbits about Internet speed worth sharing. It also reminded me that, although I had promised to talk about the issue of net neutrality in a future essay, I still haven't. There's a reason why and I'll get to that shortly, but first - the tidbits…

A report out of Sweden says that a 75-year-old woman named Sigbritt Lothberg now possesses the fastest residential Internet connection ever achieved. The connection transmits data at 40-gigabits per second, or about 1,000 times faster than an average "high-speed" Internet connection here in the U.S. The story says she can download a full-length movie in about two seconds flat (whew!).

Now granted, this is not a standard connection. It was achieved with the help of her son - a network expert - who achieved this speed using the municipal Internet connection in Karlstad, the town where his mom lives, and an experimental modulation technique. But at the least, it demonstrates the kind of speeds that are actually achievable.

The second tidbit was contained in a column written by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. In it, he points out some rather startling facts when high-speed Internet connections in the United States are compared to those in other countries. He says that America has already lost its leadership in this technology.

Krugman refers to a study by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, which found that, on average, connections in France are an average of three times faster than in the U.S., and in Japan, they're around 12 times faster. The study also points out that in most countries where high-speed connections are available, consumers generally have a choice between several competing providers, resulting in much lower average costs for service than here in the U.S.

Krugman says that the reason for this, and I agree, is bad policy. Since the early 80s, our government has taken an increasingly passive role in regulating business - particularly in terms of forcing competition. How many consumers can say they have a viable choice in high-speed service providers?

In most communities, there's one high-speed service provider, and if you don't like the quality or cost - too bad. Here in Hampton Roads, we're seeing such competition for the very first time with the entry of Verizon into the market with their FiOS system. But for the last several years, Cox was the only player in town, and Verizon has only introduced this system in limited markets, so far.

I don't blame the companies. Heck - I don't like competing either. They're just trying to maximize profits, which is what they're charged by their stockholders to accomplish.

No, the truth is that we're responsible for the way things are. We elect people who respond to special interests instead of the general public. We listen to establishment types tell us that requiring business to behave responsibly and compete fairly is somehow un-American.

This brings me to the issue of net neutrality. What this refers to is the rather fundamental question of whether or not the Internet will, in the future, be controlled by private industry, or by the public through their government.

A consortium of large telecommunications companies in the U.S. has publicly stated that they're ready to build out their infrastructure to accommodate ultra-high speed Internet transmission, but ONLY if they're given complete control of the infrastructure with no means for the public to regulate their activities. The consortium has said that this is the only way they can adequately profit from such a venture.

This would be the first time in American history that a utility, which uses public right-of-ways and serves the national interests, would be allowed to be operated by private industry with no government oversight - a proposal I consider frightening.

The telecommunications industry has poured massive amounts of money into lobbying Washington lawmakers to eliminate net neutrality - going so far as to hire former Clinton White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry to be their designated mouthpiece.

Net neutrality or the elimination thereof, is an issue that will be taken up by Congress at some point. It's possible that the final proposal will be much less malignant than I expect, but we'll just have to wait and see. When that time arrives, we'll get into it much more than now.

For now, my question is this: Has the model for a successful enterprise in America become so perverted that what works successfully and profitably in the rest of the civilized world is considered a failure here?

Meanwhile, I just thought you should know what the rest of the world is enjoying technologically while we wait for our titans of industry to get their you-know-what together.

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

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