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America the Crumbling: The Case for Greater Internet Access, Broadband and Lower Pricing

I love the World Cup. I hate Verizon. The combination of Messi, Muller, Robin van Persie and Clint Dempsey matched with the slow lag prone streaming quality of the ESPN Watch App got me thinking about the horrible state of the American Internet. Make no mistake about it, the American Internet infrastructure is crumbling. Here's why the American Internet is so bad and how we can fix it. 

The first step to solving any problem is admitting there is a problem. Much to the opposite of the talking heads on cable news, America isn't the greatest nation in the world when it comes to Internet access, speed, consistency and pricing. We have some major problems. Of which, here are the gems:

The United States has an Internet problem. National upload, download and throughput speeds are lagging behind the rest of the world. National access to high speed broadband Internet is lacking behind the rest of the world and is skewed to one part of the nation. Nationally we pay too much for Internet services which promise more yet deliver less. Nationally, the overall quality of Internet service leaves consumers disappointed.

The first step to solving any problem is admitting a problem exists. The second step is understanding how the problem started and how it has evolved.

Telecommunications: Origins, Evolution, Impact

The origins of the American Internet problem stems from crumbling infrastructure erected to deal with Morse Code and early telephone transmissions mixed with the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

While improvements have been made along the way, the vast majority of communications infrastructure in the United States was erected from the 1830's to the 1870's. That infrastructure, originally constructed to move bits of data via Morse Code and telephone communications from one place to the next, has been continually updated through the years but never truly overhauled to meet the demand of our current Internet web based world. United States tech infrastructure is old. Too old to support mass high speed broadband access.

The other major problem the nation faces in terms of Internet connection speeds and access is a monopolized system of doing business dreamed up, financed and supported by major ISP's and the U.S. Government. Signed in 1996, the Telecommunications Act was meant to spur competition between ISP/Telephone/Cable providers. Yet, as it has become clear, the act has:

"allowed cable companies and telecoms companies to simply divide markets and merge their way to monopoly, allowing them to charge customers higher and higher prices without the kind of investment in internet infrastructure, especially in next-generation fiber optic connections, that is ongoing in other countries. Fiber optic connections offer a particularly compelling example. While expensive to build, they offer faster and smoother connections than traditional copper wire connections. But Verizon stopped building out fiber optic infrastructure in 2010 — citing high costs — just as other countries were getting to work." - John Aziz, The Week, "Why is American Internet So Slow?"

Instead of fostering competition - capitalism - the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed major providers to split up market for the purpose of regional monopolization. Without competition, providers had/have no reason to update their services, build new infrastructure or improve their offerings. The 1996 Telecommunications Act lead to our current environment of higher prices for lower tiered services.

The impact of the origins and evolution of American telecommunications infrastructure has brought the nation to a landscape of crumbling outdated physical infrastructure sold to the public at higher prices with lower service standards all for the benefit of regional ISP monopolies.

It's a crummy deal.

The second step of fixing a problem is understanding its history, its evolution and its impact. The third step is fixing the problem.

How to Fix the American Internet

We know the history. We know the evolution. We know the impact. The hard part is knowing the fix. Looking at the issue from a 360 degree approach, solving the problem of crumbling American Internet equates to massive infrastructure projects, a surge in market competition and a new understanding of how the Internet economy will power global trade for the decades - maybe the century - to come.

  • 1. Capitalism Coming Back Into the Telecommunications Market
  • Owning a monopoly - regional or national - slows progress to a swift halt. Owning a monopoly means using any means necessary, legal or back channel, to keep the competition out of the game. This is what regional ISP's like Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner have done to competitors encroaching on their territories. The largest competitor thus far has been and will continue to be Google Fiber. Providing Internet connection at 100 times faster speeds (1 Gbps) and lesser monthly costs, Google Fiber has caught the ire of regional and national ISP's for their ability to prove broadband Internet access is achievable at a reasonable cost. With more and more cities signing on to have the chance to become the next Google Fiber city, instead of investing in their own services and offering more to their consumers, ISP's have chosen to fight against Google Fiber via legal channels.

    From AT & T fighting to keep 100 times faster Internet out of Austin, to multiple cable companies fighting to block municipalities from installing fiber capabilities to Time Warner stating broadband isn't worth it, major ISP's are trying every possibly means outside of upping their services to prevent Google Fiber from taking hold across the nation.

    The first step in improving the state of the American Internet is to invite more competition into the market. To, as the 1996 Telecommunications Act envisioned, open up markets to competition by removing regulatory barriers to entry. Bringing competition in the ISP market will foster innovation, upgrading of services and lowering of costs. It will also prompt the second and most critical need of improving the American Internet - infrastructure projects.

  • 2. Private and National Infrastructure to Support 21st Century Telecommunications
  • In his brilliant meditation on the history, evolution and impact of bits - The Information - James Gleick cites the need to communicate data, the need to move bits from one location to the next, as the major force behind our current telecommunications infrastructure. Built between the 1830's - 1870's and updated constantly, the US telecommunications infrastructure is a patchwork of wires, poles, tubes and satellites designed to move bits of data via limited capacity machines (telegraphs and telephones).

    With the advancement in mobile computing, smartphones, data/meta data communications, HD broadcasting and streaming content all accessible via the Cloud, our modern telecommunications infrastructure is struggling to keep up. This is why the second part of the plan to fix the American Internet must be a national build project undertaken by private, public and government bodies to update and replace old telecom infrastructure with new modern infrastructure.

    This infrastructure would include new data centers, fiber cables, smarter wiring of transistor cables and more powerful satellites all connected via the Internet of Things to mobile devices streaming data 24/7/365 all being powered off a low emissions smart grid with exponential output power capacity. The aggregate of such an undertaking would be a revitalized system of bit connection capable of powering the Internet economy which currently exists and which will continue to grow.

  • 3. The Broadband Economy and the Financial Boom of Speedy, Stable Connections
  • The third major leap which needs to take place is understanding the impact more competition and new infrastructure (practically a new Internet) will have the American/global economy. Thinking about the issue in broad terms, schooling, careers, socialization and ideas all sprout online. No longer is the Sunday edition of The New York Times considered to be the end all be all of everything that is fit to print. Jobs are found online. Schools are found online and schooling is accomplished online. Programmers and web developers are in higher demand now than they have ever been. With the world wide web moving from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0, STEM skills coupled with programming skills and logic are in high demand.

    Beyond jobs, the Internet is a key player in global commerce. As noted by McKinsey:

    "research into the Internet economies of the G-8 nations as well as Brazil, China, India, South Korea, and Sweden finds that the web accounts for a significant and growing portion of global GDP. Indeed, if measured as a sector, Internet-related consumption and expenditure is now bigger than agriculture or energy. On average, the Internet contributes 3.4 percent to GDP in the 13 countries covered by the research—an amount the size of Spain or Canada in terms of GDP, and growing at a faster rate than that of Brazil."

    Similar reports have been published by BCG, Ericsson and the ITU, to name a few. The statistics are there. The financial impacts of Internet access and broadband access have been eagerly reported. Now the work has to be done.

    Can the state of the American Internet be saved and updated to lead the world? Yes. Do private companies and federal officials have the ability to put in place the infrastructure needed to meet such a goal? Absolutely. Does the American public want faster Internet speeds, greater access ability and better consistency? Every poll has showed just that.

    The American Internet is crumbling but it isn't past the point of repair and salvation. It will take a ton a work but it can be accomplished.

    It's time to get to work.

    How about you? Do you think the American Internet can be fixed, modernized and brought to the forefront of the global economy? If so, what needs to happen? Leave your comments below.

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