In Cities Start Own Efforts To Speed Up Broadband on the front page of the May 19, 2008 edition of the Wall Street Journal (full article available to WSJ subscribers only), Christopher Rhoads reports how many smaller cities in the US have fallen on the wrong side of a domestic broadband gap and how some are taking on huge financial risks to vault themselves onto the right side. He also details how the US at large is slipping to the bottom rungs of a growing international broadband gap. The essence of the story:
“Some 60 towns and small cities, including Bristol, Va., Barnsville, Minn., and Sallisaw, Okla., have built state-of-the-art fiber networks, capable of speeds many times faster than most existing connections from cable and telecom companies. An additional two dozen municipalities, including Chattanooga, have launched or are considering similar initiatives.
The efforts highlight a battle over Internet policy in the U.S. Once the undisputed leader in the technological revolution, the U.S. now lags a growing number of countries in the speed, cost and availability of high-speed Internet. While cable and telecom companies are spending billions to upgrade their service, they’re focusing their efforts mostly on larger U.S. cities for now.
Smaller ones such as Chattanooga say they need to fill the vacuum themselves or risk falling further behind and losing highly-paid jobs. Chattanooga’s city-owned electric utility began offering ultrafast Internet service to downtown business customers five years ago. Now it plans to roll out a fiber network to deliver TV, high-speed Internet and phone service to some 170,000 customers. The city has no choice but to foot the bill itself for a high-speed network — expected to cost $230 million — if it wants to remain competitive in today’s global economy, says Harold DePriest, the utility’s chief executive officer.
It’s a risky bet. Some municipal Internet efforts, including wireless projects known as Wi-Fi, have failed in recent months. EarthLink Inc. confirmed last week it was pulling the plug on its wireless partnership with Philadelphia. A number of towns have abandoned a municipal fiber initiative in Utah, called Utopia, amid financial difficulties.
The latest efforts have aroused intense opposition from private-sector providers… “
As to the situation in the US compared with that in other developed countries: Charts in the WSJ article show to US to rank “…10th amongst the top 30 industrialized countries in terms of broadband penetration and 11th in terms of affordability.” The US also ranks well below the international average in terms of download speed.
My take: The domestic and international broadband gaps are further evidence of the inability of “markets,” and the unwillingness of profit-based private companies, to provide essential infrastructure on which economic competitiveness and security on based. In the past, great leaps forward in US domestic infrastructure were made through massive public sector investments and programs that bridged distance and disparities and enabled high capacity flows of goods and services: rural free postal delivery, rural electrification, WWII Liberty Ships, and even the post-war federal highways programs (despite their disastrous consequences ecologically and in terms of fossil-fuel and “SUV” dependence). The same goes for the infrastructure required for the US to ensure its competitiveness and integration into the global economy.
Don’t understand broadband and its importance? These four magnificent short advertising clips provide a thorough and humorous first lesson: