I think that any of you actually reading this are like me in regards to one of our favorite topics: Internet speeds. I think we'd all like to have faster connections to the 'Net regardless of the speeds we may already enjoy. At present, I have 16Mbs download/1Mbs upload speed from my ISP, the local cable company. Not bad. Not great, but not bad.
But what if much higher speed were available at a reasonable cost, say 50Mbs/20Mbs? What about 100Mbs? Or 1Gbs? Would you get it? I know I would.
But what if I told you it's highly unlikely that many of you will, at least in the US? (I know some of my overseas readers, all three of you, probably have higher 'Net speeds available than we do here in the good ol' US of A, and at a much lower cost.)
The problem isn't technological. There's plenty of tech out there right now capable of providing those kinds of connection speeds. Most of it is already deployed, at least in some of the more urban areas. Even my rather rural ISP is presently capable of turning up the speed to 100Mbs or higher, or at least the equipment they have deployed is capable of it. But they won't, at least not without the consumers paying a lot more to get it. There are a couple of reasons for that, but it can all be boiled down to one single cause.
Some of the bigger players don't want you to have higher speeds for two reasons: it means they have to further upgrade their systems and they can charge more for the slower speeds they do offer. They do this through means of legislation at the state level, making competition difficult if not impossible which leaves some of them as the only game in town. They do it at a federal level, either looking for regulatory interference which benefits them and hinders their competition, or legislative relief, i.e. rent-seeking, that helps guarantee they maintain their semi-monopolies in their most profitable areas of operation.
Politics is the reason why the US has some of the slowest Internet speeds and highest Internet costs in the world.
I am not saying we need to impose yet another layer of government regulations or more heavy-handed legislation to fix this problem. Quite the contrary. I am saying we need to level the playing field by doing away with the anti-competitive laws and regulations at both the state and federal level.
Some states have laws that forbid municipalities from creating their own telecommunications infrastructure, by which I mean Internet, phone, and video services. They are locked out in order to preserve the quasi-monopolies enjoyed by the commercial entities. But what if these privately owned commercial entities can't or won't provide the services people want? With these kinds of laws in place the people being 'served' by these providers are stuck with no alternative and poor service. The providers have no incentive to upgrade their systems and the services they provide. If the population density is low enough, there won't be much in the way of competitors coming in to do battle with the incumbent. So why not let the communities roll their own if the existing provider won't?
A number of towns here in southwestern New Hampshire have done something along those lines, forming an alliance to bring fiber based high-speed services to their underserved communities. 35 towns in Vermont have done the same thing. Because no private enterprise thought it was worth it to do so, these rural towns banded together to do it themselves. Why can't communities in the states which presently ban such programs do the same thing? Why must they be stuck with inferior and high cost service merely because of rent-seeking by incumbent “providers”? It's stupid.
Do we need something akin to the old Rural Electrification Agency to see that underserved communities get what they need? (Yes, I know there's the Rural Utilities Service fund that's supposed to help do this, but it's far too political and many of the towns who needed the most help getting broadband service of any kind were told “Tough luck!”) I know this is a throwback to the days of FDR, but the REA made sure every town received electrical service, and later helped with making telephone service available as well. If removing the regulatory and legislative roadblocks isn't possible, then maybe something akin to a Rural Broadband Commission might solve the problem. But rather than being staffed with government bureaucrats, have it's seats filled with folks from the areas affected. Let the commission cut through the red tape preventing better broadband services from coming to underserved communities. (This is just back-of-the-envelope thinking. Obviously I haven't really thought out the details of how something like this would work. Hell, chances are I am entirely off-base about the idea!)
But what about those of us not stuck with the problems of the more rural communities? What of those of us paying through the nose for overpriced bandwidth with little hope of seeing our speeds go up and/or our costs coming down? I mentioned above that my ISP provides me with 16Mbs/1Mbs, it having upping the speed recently from 12Mbs/1Mbs. It cost me an additional $5 month. If I want to save $10 I can drop my speed to the next lower speed – 4Mbs/512Kbs – but that would put a serious crimp in our browsing and video streaming. Of course I could also up the speed to 50Mbs/5Mbs for an additional $20 month, but I'm not willing to pay that much extra. Call me cheap, but I know what the ISP is paying for their access to the 'Net. They're more than making their money back, and then some.
And then there's Net Neutrality, something I am of two minds about. It is also something I am not going to address in this post because it makes a good post in and of itself. But I will say that there are both good and bad things about it, and either way, it can affect what we pay for Internet service, the speeds we'll see, and the costs of online subscription services some of us use, like Netflix, Hulu Plus, VuDu, and Amazon Prime, just to name a few.
It's going to be interesting.