America: Broadband Ghetto

| September-October, 2009

Broadband Internet in the United States is a national embarrassment, the Washington Monthly (June 2009) reports. Fourteen countries currently have faster systems that cost less and reach more people—and the gap is widening. The lethargic upload and download speeds that Americans tolerate aren’t just annoying, they’re kneecapping innovation. “The countries that deploy ubiquitous high-speed broadband first are the countries that will develop the tools to use it,” says the Monthly.

There are plenty of high-speed, fiber-optic cables crisscrossing the United States, but few extend into people’s homes. To get their personal computers on the web, users rely on outdated copper wires controlled by either phone or cable companies. Those telecoms operate in near-monopolies, giving them little motivation to improve service.

Japan and South Korea achieved their Internet dominance with massive subsidies to Internet providers to expand fiber-optic networks, a policy that’s politically unpalatable. Switzerland achieved better broadband by offering tax credits that encourage competition. Both of these ideas have been kicked around in the United States, but the best strategy, according to the Washington Monthly, would be for the U.S. government to create an agency like the post office and offer government-run broadband. It could compete with telecoms, in the same way UPS and FedEx compete with the postal service.

For this sort of radical policy change to take place, a change in mind-set is also necessary: Americans need to start viewing high-speed Internet as a necessity to be encouraged, rather than just a convenience, if they hope to compete in tomorrow’s information economy.

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