Broadband, Policy and the Future

Carl Weinschenk

There is no heavy technology in this New York Times story on growth of Internet congestion. That's for the best, since two of the worthwhile points the piece makes would be obscured if readers were knee-high in bits and bytes. The takeaway is that the dramatic stresses on the Internet -- in the form of both a higher volume of data and the need to support far more finicky convergence applications -- is being met by an equal growth in the technology. In other words, demands are growing, but so are the Internet's capabilities.


Maintaining this equilibrium going forward is more than a technical issue. The writer says it also is a matter of public policy, which is a big deal in an election year. Clearly, there are more pressing issues for the candidates to deal with, such as the overall economy and the war in Iraq. The approach to broadband infrastructure nonetheless is a very important issue in terms of the nation's competitiveness.


The Internet is so fundamental that broadband policy has become an important national issue. This is the executive summary from a long report from EDUCAUSE backing provisioning of 100 Mbps of capacity to every home and business in America by 2012. This would be paid for by a $100 billion Universal Broadband Fund.


The organization, which advocates the use of information technology in higher education, suggests that there will be a shortfall of capacity in the near future and says that the United States is lagging behind other nations because of our deregulatory approach. The writer concedes that such an approach offers some benefits. It has a fatal flaw, however: Many elements that are important to society but not in the interests of the companies building the network get short shrift. Benefits of upgrading to 100 Mbps include fiber's lower maintenance costs and a huge stimulus to the economy. Such networks could expand beyond 100 Mbps.


Public versus private seems to be shaping up as a vital issue. Here, Reclaim the Media editorializes on California's Broadband Task Force's final report. The report and the editorial say that there are about 2,000 communities in the state without broadband access and many others that are underserved. The editorial bemoans the fact that the task force advocates the use of private providers to build out the system. A better approach, the paper says, is public ownership. This will give communities more control over their telecommunications futures.


The general consensus is that we are at a crossroads in terms of our national telecommunications infrastructure. That was a point made by Michael Kleeman last autumn in the San Francisco Chronicle. Kleeman, a senior fellow at UC San Diego and at the Annenberg Center for Communication at USC, wrote that the telecommunications infrastructure is as real as that supporting water, electricity and roads. The basic difference -- that it is invisible to end users -- doesn't lessen its relative importance. The bottom line, he says, is that the traditional Internet infrastructure can't support the demands increasingly being put on it. Writes Kleeman:

It's as if every home in America suddenly needed 10 times more water at 10 times the quality coming out of the same sized faucet. Today, the average home uses as much bandwidth as a major office park did a few years ago.

He says that the United States has gone from fourth to 15th place in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's broadband ranking.


The United States isn't the only nation facing these issues, of course. This Telegraph story outlines similar challenges in the UK. If anything, the situation is more stark: 90 percent of Brits connect via broadband. The comments are similar to remarks about infrastructure on this side of the Atlantic. The common wisdom seems to be that demand is growing at a frightening pace, but that if prudent measures are taken -- such as herding folks into the type of service that most suits them and transferring some demand onto wireless -- the situation can be handled.

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