Volume 17, Number 29 -- July 28, 2008

As I See It: Babes in Broadband

Published: July 28, 2008

by Victor Rozek

A couple of years back, my wife got frustrated with our glacially slow Internet connection and called Qwest, our telephone service provider, to see if anything could be done--preferably before the next millennium. After spending the obligatory eon in automated phone-support hell, then being shuffled to an assortment of earnest but useless people, she was finally dumped on the marketing department.

Now, marketing is not a reality-based profession. It is most assuredly faith-based, complete with promises of eternal satisfaction. Just sign here and accept Qwest as your provider, and you will be granted eternal access at heavenly speeds. Well, as you can imagine, my wife was excited; salvation was at hand. She was ready to become a true believer, eager for life after land lines. Alas, it turns out that a woman is not saved from land lines by faith alone. She was told she would have to get at least 20 households to sign a petition requesting high-speed Internet because the company was apparently too lazy to do its own market research.

So my wife set about posting notices in the local store and café, and stapling announcements onto telephone poles. Almost immediately, she was deluged by calls from frustrated neighbors, all with their own tales of woe, all willing to convert to the one, true provider in return for the promise of a high-speed link. Within a few days there were 32 households ready for the rapture of a broadband connection.

"You have done well," said marketing guy, "the great provider is pleased." So pleased in fact that marketing guy took my wife to lunch as a thank you, presumably for doing his job for him. The problem was that marketing guy hadn't talked to engineering guy, and was oblivious to the fact that the life of engineering guy was routinely made miserable because of promises made by guys just like him.

Months passed, and we waited, ever hopeful. Occasionally, my wife would call to see how things were progressing, and noticed that her calls to marketing guy were not being returned as promptly; until finally, they were not returned at all. (He had, I began to suspect, probably been beaten to within an inch of his life by the engineering department, and was off licking his wounds.) Finally, however, he worked up enough courage to call and confirm what we already knew: There would be no high-speed link. And because no good deed goes unpunished, the neighbors blamed my wife for dashing their Internet hopes.

There is, however, a small--if unsatisfactory--consolation: We are not alone. Some 65 percent of U.S. households with annual incomes under $50,000 do not have a high-speed Internet connection. The U.S. now ranks a whopping 22nd in the world when it comes to providing its citizens with affordable uber-fast Internet access, and in the last seven years we've dropped from 4th to 15th in broadband penetration. (Which may actually be a good thing, because whatever "broadband penetration" is, it sounds awfully painful).

So far the response from government has been: Let them eat kilobits, and leave it to the free market to sort out. Except there's no longer any such thing as a "free market," especially where telecommunications is concerned. With the passage of the Clinton-era Telecommunications Act of 1996, big telecom companies became HUGE telecom companies, and years of consolidations have created what economists call "monopoly markets."

As the Brattleboro Reformer editorialized on July 11th ". . . broadband access [in the U.S.] is in the hands of the cable and phone company duopoly, which controls access to 98 percent of the U.S. online market. It is why Americans pay more and get less than what is available in the rest of the developed world." And this lack of competition is precisely why Qwest doesn't give a rat's whisker whether we get broadband or not.

But the impact goes far beyond daily annoyance. It strikes at the heart of 21st century economic prosperity. According to the Reformer report, "A Brookings Institution study found that nearly 300,000 new American jobs are created for every 1 percent increase in national broadband penetration." At a time when the economy is hemorrhaging roughly 60,000 jobs per month, you'd think that statistic would get somebody's attention.

Well, it probably has, but monopoly markets take unkindly to competition. "The phone and cable companies" said the Reformer, "vigorously lobby lawmakers at every level of government to force through regulations that protect their market position, close off access to new technology and competitors, and increase control over the content that travels over the Internet."

Of course, we aren't the only industrialized nation with lobbyists, but we seem to tolerate them consistently usurping the national good. Eight years ago, Japan faced the same dilemma. Only 2.2 percent of its households had broadband access and a small telecommunications oligarchy controlled the distribution of digital information. They were the gatekeepers, and they kept the gate locked. But in a bold move, the government kicked it open by the simple act of abolishing proprietary networks. The Reformer reports: "Every phone company had to open their residential lines to wholesale access by other companies." The result was an explosion of innovation and competitive pricing. In under four years, access rose from single digits "to more than 80 percent," and is even higher today.

So here I sit, getting visibly older with every screen refresh, while "other nations are busy building 100 megabit networks that will transport voice, video and other data at speeds unimaginable to current American Internet users." Unimaginable indeed. The average advertized broadband download speed in Japan is 93.7 megabits per second. In the U.S. it's a piffling 8.9 megabits per second. But even that is like the speed of light compared to the 21.6 kilobit transmission rate my wife is cursing in the next room.

What distinguishes these nations is that they have a national broadband policy. Sweden, the first European country to commit to universal broadband, has invested $820 million in the effort to date. While an investment of under $1 billion may sound modest, it equates to a commitment of some $30 billion in a country with an economy the size of the U.S.

A study by Educause, a non-profit technology in education advocate, estimates that an investment of $100 billion would bring fiber to every home. It recommends that the cost be divided equally between the Federal government, the states, and telecommunications companies (which for the Feds equates to about four months of dumping money down the Iraq pit). But I have a more modest proposal: Tax the war profiteers--the Haliburtons and the oil companies, et al.--and create a national broadband network.

The Internet has become as essential a part of the national infrastructure as schools, roads, and bridges. It supports commerce, education, entertainment, global communication, and all the pornography you can stomach. (OK, so it's not all rosebuds and rainbows.) But it is how information gets around and, as an engine of economic growth, it works best when more people fuel it. And most importantly, it may well be the last best hope for a democracy in rapid decline.

Ideally, the Internet should be treated as part of the commons, a public asset, protected and perfected; open to all, and free of the limitations and inflated costs of monopoly markets. In a time, when the general welfare is increasingly sacrificed to market manipulation (see the housing, credit, and oil crises), establishing universal broadband access would represent a rare triumph of the national interest over corporate supremacy.

I know my wife would be pleased.

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