Look Ma, Faster Broadband!

by on January 29, 2009 · 15 comments

In the summer of 2000, while I was in college, I moved into a big house with 6 other guys. DSL was just coming on the market, and we were big nerds, so we decided to splurge on fast Internet access. Back then, “fast Internet access” meant a blazing fast (Update: 512k) DSL connection. We had to pay the phone company about $65/month for the line. And we paid our Internet Service Provider $55/month for the connectivity and 8 static IP addresses (thanks to local loop unbundling these were separate services). For $120/month we got to live in the future, enjoying connectivity 10 times faster than the 56k modems that almost everyone had at the time.

Adjusting for inflation, $120 of 2000 money is about $140 of 2009 money. So I was interested to see that St. Louis, MO, where I lived until recently, is about to get 60 mbps Internet service courtesy of Charter, the local cable monopoly. Had I stayed in St. Louis for another year, I would have been able to get 120 times the bandwidth for the same inflation-adjusted cost as the broadband access I had less than a decade ago.

It has almost become a cliche to lament the dismal state of America’s broadband market. There do seem to be countries that are doing better than we are, and we should certainly study what they’ve done and see if there are ideas we could adapt here in the states. But I also think a sense of perspective is important. I can’t get too upset about the possibility that in 2018 Americans might be limping along with 2 gbps broadband connections while the average Japanese family has a 20 gbps connection.

  • tim

    “dismal state of America’s broadband market”

    I never understood this statement nor seen a good reason why having really really big pipes are a measurement of advancement. When I am in other countries that have higher bandwidth I am not seeing better applications. Matter of fact I am downright disappointed. When I actually see 20gbps bandwidth being utilized for something other then leeching porn I may start caring more.

  • MikeRT

    Aside from streaming audio and video, what really cannot be done on a fast DSL or cable connection? Those connections provide plenty of bandwidth for business applications.

  • dm

    Admittedly a majority of Americans live within reach of cable and DSL, but a substantial minority do not, and are still limited to telephone dial-up. Those are the people we most want to bring within reach of telecommuting and e-commerce (and not necessarily for the people currently living in those areas, but for the people who would move to those areas if the communications infrastructure could support their economic activity).

    Though when I hear about the “dismal state of America's broadband market” I also reflect on the fact that it's being compared to countries where 25-40% of the population live in a single, dense, metropolitan area, and I can't help but wonder if that doesn't have something to do with it.

  • http://felter.org/ Wes Felter

    Indeed. People won't buy “ultrabroadband” to run today's apps faster; it will enable new apps. But that will only happen when there is a critical mass of users so that these new apps are worth developing.

  • jstrummer

    simply because we can't yet envision all the applications that might be possible with truly broadband service, does that mean we should not want to get good broadband, and not the rinky-dinky crap we have now?

    I would be annoyed at 2 gbps broadband if the Japanese had 20, just as I think our broadbrand today is horrible compared to some other developed countries.

  • http://tieguy.org/ Luis

    Sorry, Tim, but you've missed the boat here. I'm sure lots of rural Americans in the 30s weren't too upset that Germany had autobahns while they were perfectly satisfied with just getting roads paved. But that investment in real, serious highways had massive impact on economic growth- albeit impact that was hard to foresee or quantify in the 20s and 30s. Ditto mandatory public education- in the 1800s, people were pleased enough when kids went to Sunday School; they couldn't foresee the benefit of a massively educated populace, and lots of them tried to stop full-time education for children on a variety of grounds- clearly those kids were better off working. I see no reason to think that bandwidth is any different- that 10x difference will have obvious positive impacts on things like telecommuting but we should also expect- and see as a benefit- the lots of other things it will enable that we can't even think of right now.

  • http://tieguy.org/ Luis

    to elaborate on that education example, because I think it matters: at the time, the argument was that 'everyone who needs/wants education can get it privately, so why should we give provision to everyone?' It turns out that all kinds of things are possible when everyone is literate- for example, universal literacy creates economies of scale in the printing and magazine markets that were previously unattainable, allowing all kinds of growth and experimentation in that area in the mid-to-late 1800s. I think broadband is similar; there are things that are hypothetically possible now for anyone who happens to get FiOS that won't be commercialized and popularized until *everyone* has FiOS-like speeds- and that commercialization and popularization is what we really want/need for rapid progress and innovation.

  • http://www.cs.princeton.edu/~tblee Tim Lee

    Fair enough, but I think it's important to look at the time scale here. Germany had about a 20-year head start on freeway construction, and you may very well be right that that had important economic consequences. In contrast, I don't think even the harshest critics of US broadband policy would argue that we're more than 5 years behind Japan and South Korea, and 2-3 years behind the leading European nations.

    Moreover, given how rapidly these technologies are changing, it seems likely that there are diminishing returns from being on the bleeding edge. That is, the first guy with a 100 mbps broadband connection is going to have trouble fully exploiting it because few people will build applications designed for those kinds of users until there's a critical mass of them.

    There's also the empirical point that the center of Internet applications development still seems to be Silicon Valley, and Silicon Valley startups tend to develop English-language versions of their site before Japanese or Korean ones. Maybe Japan's Internet market is larger and more significant than I realize, or maybe Silicon Valley is on the way out, but it certainly looks to me like the US isn't being unduly hampered by its allegedly inferior broadband access. (For example, YouTube probably this decade's most bandwidth-hungry startup, was founded a month before France's DailyMotion. I don't know if there's an analogous Japanese video site).

    Finally, just to re-iterate, I'm not claiming we should be completely unconcerned about broadband issues. We need more reliable data, and if those data confirm that the US is behind other nations we should study those other nations' policies and see if they can be adapted here. But I also think a sense of perspective is important. America's broadband infrastructure is improving rapidly, and we need to worry about bad policies impeding that growth at the same time we ponder ways to accelerate it.

  • http://tieguy.org/ Luis

    Sorry, Tim, but you've missed the boat here. I'm sure lots of rural Americans in the 30s weren't too upset that Germany had autobahns while they were perfectly satisfied with just getting roads paved. But that investment in real, serious highways had massive impact on economic growth- albeit impact that was hard to foresee or quantify in the 20s and 30s. Ditto mandatory public education- in the 1800s, people were pleased enough when kids went to Sunday School; they couldn't foresee the benefit of a massively educated populace, and lots of them tried to stop full-time education for children on a variety of grounds- clearly those kids were better off working. I see no reason to think that bandwidth is any different- that 10x difference will have obvious positive impacts on things like telecommuting but we should also expect- and see as a benefit- the lots of other things it will enable that we can't even think of right now.

  • http://tieguy.org/ Luis

    to elaborate on that education example, because I think it matters: at the time, the argument was that 'everyone who needs/wants education can get it privately, so why should we give provision to everyone?' It turns out that all kinds of things are possible when everyone is literate- for example, universal literacy creates economies of scale in the printing and magazine markets that were previously unattainable, allowing all kinds of growth and experimentation in that area in the mid-to-late 1800s. I think broadband is similar; there are things that are hypothetically possible now for anyone who happens to get FiOS that won't be commercialized and popularized until *everyone* has FiOS-like speeds- and that commercialization and popularization is what we really want/need for rapid progress and innovation.

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