In the five years, the really vogue statement has become "If it weren't for the government, we would have (cheaper/faster/more accessible/better/European-like/fairer/safer/free/unlimited) internet." Of course, all of these statements are almost universally false. Does anyone ever say "If it weren't for government, we'd have 100 Terabyte hard drives"? Not that I know of. Does anyone say "If it weren't for government, we'd have 10 gigahertz GPUs in every smartphone"? No. These things are not said because it is obvious that the development of those technologies is based on what the "market need" is, and not on what the "theoretical limit" is. For example, the average consumer desire for hard drive capacity has increased roughly 2-5% year/year since personal computers became available. Simply put: 100 Terabyte hard drives do not exist because virtually no one needs them. 10 gigahertz processors do not exist because virtually no one has software that could run on them...i.e. no one needs them.
The question of faster, cheaper broadband is actually surprisingly similar. The author of the above linked article, Rick Karr, points out that in the Netherlands "visited homes there that get 100 mbps service in both directions - they can upload as fast as they download." The question I have is this: what the crap do you need 100 mbps upload speed for? For those of you who don't know the internet term "mbps" it stands for "megabits per second." U.S. standard broadband plans typically vary from 0.5 to 18 mbps for homes. Those are just the download speeds, however. Upload speeds are generally about a quarter to a tenth the download speed.
It's a serious question, I am asking. What in God's name does a home consumer do on the internet that requires them to upload files at 100 mbps? Currently there is only one thing: illegally seeding movies and music for others. Even the most demanding games on Xbox or PS3 require only a tiny fraction of that bandwidth. Streaming HD movies off of Netflix? That's downloading, not uploading. Illegally sending your friends copies of an illegally obtained digital version of Captain America? Now that's uploading.
But let's get back to the topic of the American internet situation. And for the sake of argument, let's pretend like the
Who's fault is it? Karr clearly thinks the blame falls on the government, because that's the title of his piece. But he never explains it. He just attacks AT&T and Verizon for being "afraid of competition." As though that's a corporate vice. What exactly does Karr think the government has done? Not forced American internet service providers to compete more and screw themselves? In almost the same breathless paragraph, Karr touts the free market competition in the UK and then praises the government for its direct intervention in that market.
Here in Kansas City, Google is planning to install a fiber optic network throughout the city. Pricing for this "1 gigabit" network is expected to be similar to local broadband costs. But now the question the city executives and local business owners are asking is "what the crap do we do with 1 gigabit internet?" According to some data, thats a pretty good question for Karr's fabled "100 mbps" Netherlands. The fastest, most connected city in the world, Seoul, only manages to burn through about 15 mbps per person (and that's download, not upload). Why does a Dutchman need 8 times that? Why does anyone?
The market for broadband will continue to strengthen. Don't get me wrong. A day will come where every teenage kid needs 100 mbps in his/her house to keep up with their peers. But today isn't that day. Neither is tomorrow. There is no home consumer market for it. And because there is no market for it, there is no U.S. company that provides it. This is not the fault of the government, it is simply the reality of American society in 2011. There is no law that says you cannot have 100 mbps internet at your house. There is no law that says AT&T can't set up a faster internet system. There's just no market for it.
A final thought on Karr's article: I hate to call him out as a blatant liar, but he claims that U.S.-equivalent broadband is available via TalkTalk for $6/month. That's true - for the first 6 months - then the price doubles to $12. Add in the mandatory monthly "line rental" at another $18/month (wow, I thought US fees were bad, try 300% in fees), add in taxes and you've got $35/month for internet. Certainly this is cheap. But its really not that much more than the basic DSL package from AT&T...which is only $15/month. In fact AT&T advertises blazing fast broadband for a mere $19.95 a month. I must be confused. It's almost like broadband via AT&T (Karr's fraidy cats) is actually just as cheap if not cheaper than the super-awesome "competitive market" broadband in Britain.
Karr's article, like so many others, is a classic in "the way they do (pseudo-public service) in (European country) is...somehow...better" that can be fairly easily demolished (and regularly is). American government is not the problem. American lack of demand for ultra-fast broadband is the problem.