As America prepares to retire the public telephone network that served us so well for nearly 100 years, we need to take stock of the new Internet-oriented broadband voice, video and data networks that have taken its place. In the past decade, broadband has made tremendous progress: in 2000, broadband services were almost unknown, used by less than 5 percent of Americans. Broadband now reaches more than 90 percent of U.S. households with wire-based services, 96 percent with wireless, and virtually 100 percent by satellite. All of these services enable most people to use most Internet services.
In addition, our networks transfer more data per dollar than ever before. Cable television-based broadband reaches 82 percent of households with a service capable of surfing the web at speeds up to 100 megabits per second, nearly 100 times faster than the norm in 2000. DSL networks run as fast as 40 Mbps in urban areas, the newest generation of mobile, LTE, runs as fast as 25 Mbps, and satellite providers now offer 15 Mbps connections. These networks have been built with private investment supplemented by small taxpayer subsidies for some rural deployments.
Networking in Vermont
There is a gap in broadband speeds between rural and urban America, as there is between those in America as a whole and some of the small, densely populated foreign countries where most people live in high-rise apartment buildings. The national gap is small but measurable: the average capacity of U.S. broadband connections is just more than 30 Mbps, while the nation with the fastest connections (and largest government subsidies), Japan, clocks in at 50 Mbps. But the “shortfall” hasn’t prevented America from leading the world in broadband services such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, eBay and the like.
Rural America will not be left behind: Vermont, for example, has the fastest broadband speeds of any American state at 47 Mbps. Vermont’s networks are a combination of privately-financed systems built by the cable and phone companies and subsidized demonstration projects in several cities. Vermont is close enough to major Internet on-ramps in Boston that its information highways are relatively inexpensive.
This isn’t always the case in the West, where major Internet centers are less common. This obstacle can be overcome with public-private partnerships to install advanced “backhaul” connections between communities and the nearest Internet Exchange Point. Such connections can serve schools, libraries, public safety, and commercial networks alike. The process of extending high-speed backhaul to rural America is akin to building the railroads in the 19th century: most of the capital comes from the private sector, but right of way is provided by the people in return for public benefits. In limited circumstances, local services will require subsidies for a period of time until they become self-sufficient.
Despite the facts, some inside-the-beltway advocates argue that our private broadband services aren’t any good. They distort figures on international speed, price and subscription rates to make their case, but thoughtful study of the data shows that the U.S. is doing quite well overall and does not need a radical makeover.
We should be more aggressive in subsidizing faster networks in rural areas and in stimulating computer ownership and Internet skills broadly among Americans, but our overall broadband system is working well.
The broadband Internet is the most pervasive, dynamic, and useful network ever constructed, so it’s in everyone’s interest to warm up to it. Many Internet applications are notorious time-wasters, but the Internet will be the basis for much of the business, education, and health care of the future, so on the whole it’s as serious as cancer and much more beneficial.