Raise the Speed Limit
Assuring the right to affordable broadband
This article originally appeared in Forbes on Jan. 21, 2015.
By Fabian Bustamante
For several countries around the world—and even according to the United Nations– broadband access is a basic human right. Just not in the United States.
Despite boasting nearly universal broadband availability and top-tier services’ speeds that showcase the future for much of the world, cost of access keeps a large fraction of 50 million Americans offline.
A new White House initiative briefly mentioned in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address may offer some hope. Obama said, “Twenty first century businesses need 21st century infrastructure — modern ports, stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest Internet.
Let’s make sure we pay attention to the right metrics this time. Broadband Internet access has been shown to be instrumental to social and economic development. It has the potential to change nearly every aspect of our daily life from education, work and entertainment to healthcare and political participation.
It is not about Netflix NFLX +0.55% downloading faster. Telemedicine applications enabled by broadband can improve health and medical outcomes, particularly to those in remote areas or with limited mobility. Online courses and a broad range of educational material can improve basic education performance and perhaps address the shortage of teachers.
The last few years have brought hundreds of new initiatives, in nearly every country in the world– including the U.S.– aimed at ensuring access to high-speed Internet. Most such efforts stated their goals in terms of availability and the speed of broadband services. The U..S has excelled in both metrics. On Internet penetration – the fraction of the population that has access to the Internet – the U.S. boasts a network penetration of 84 percent, ranking among the top nations in the world, next to Japan and Switzerland.
The same goes for speed. Despite an outdated definition of broadband starting at 4Mbps, in several communities across the land from Chattanooga to Seattle you can now subscribe to 1Gbps services or 1,000 megabits per second. If you live in Minneapolis, you can even get what may be the fastest broadband service in the world – 10Gbps or about 300 times the country’s current average connection speed. And it will only cost you $399 per month.
The problem is not availability nor it is speed, but affordability. A recent report from the Pew Research Internet Project shows that while 91 percent of the US adults in households with incomes greater than $75,000 per year use high-speed Internet at home, the number drops to 52 percent for those with yearly income below $30,000. This is not surprising. According to the last report from the Open Technology Institute, the cost of a 25-50Mbps broadband service in Los Angeles $70 or about 2.8 times more expensive than in London. And it is about twice what you would pay in Paris.
From the same report, for $35 to $50 per month you can get a service in Seoul that is about 300Mbps or nearly 14 times higher than what you can contract in Washington DC. Part of the problem is lack of competition. A recent white paper from the White House points out that nearly 40 percent of American households either cannot purchase a fixed 10 Mbps service or they must buy it from a single provider. For 25Mbps (a level of service the FCC is considering as the next threshold for broadband), three out of four Americans do not have a choice between providers.
Community-owned broadband, if allowed, could offer an alternative when the market does not generate a healthy level of competition and the new BroadbandUSA initiative can help these services succeed. This is not the only model, of course. Different countries around the world have taken a number of paths toward available, fast and affordable broadband, with different forms of private/public partnerships and levels of government incentive.
Whatever the plan and whoever initiates it, ensuring broadband affordability is long overdue; it is rather urgent.
- Fabian Bustamante is a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Northwestern University.