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Official: America now a nation of broadband whingers

It's no utopia, but at least you don't get shot for chewing gum

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Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Analysis In popular mythology, the British are a nation of whingers, while Americans get on and fix things. This was certainly my experience of crossing the Atlantic to live in the USA. When a London Tube train came to an unexpected halt, you would brace yourself for a malevolent explosion of spittle. The exhalation was a short hand for "I told you so", and meant that anyone who had begun the day with the most cynical view possible had just been vindicated. There. Told you so.

But gradually Americans are becoming as whingy as the British. At least when it comes to the internet.

Exhibit A for my case is the reaction to a new report on the state of USA. Veteran internet greybeard Richard Bennett is one of the authors of a new study from ITIF, a tech policy think tank, into whether Americans get a raw deal with broadband.

The study concludes that US broadband "is neither a wasteland nor a utopia", but notes how fibre and 4G have transformed the fusty marketplace in a few short years. We learn that the USA is now sixth in the OECD table for fast connections, and third in its ability for consumers to switch between high speed cable and DSL providers. American businesses now buy more fibre than the whole of Europe - often lighting up fibre that was 'dark' after the dot com bubble popped in 2000.

All this is impressive, because the combination of physics and low population density in urban areas meant that for a long time, DSL in the USA was embarrassingly slow. (Longer loops mean slower DSL). Even in the past three years, the USA has jumped from 12th to 7th in the ranking for availability of high speed broadband amongst OECD nations.

To hear Europe held up as a model for Americans is bizarre, given the routine throttling of domestic cable broadband and the tardy introduction of 4G here in the UK.

This report in Ars Technica has a very British reaction to the ITIF study. "I have exactly two choices between corporate giants," moans the author, who expresses disgust at finding his cable connection was actually twice as fast as Comcast advertised. A scandal! There's no pleasing some people.

The expert wheeled on by Ars to refute the ITIF figures cites Latvia, Hong Kong and Bulgaria as being cheaper. In fact, most things in Latvia and Bulgaria are cheaper - including horse meat.

The truth is, wherever we are, we get the internet we pay for. It's Americans demand for entertainment, (and willingness to pay for it), and the willingness of investors to splash huge amounts on Verizon's FiOS, a fibre-based cable competitor, that's driven US broadband up the international table. It's essential that the competition is maintained - and the fibre industry has a long way to go, reaching only around 20 per cent of US homes.

The drumbeat of criticism of US broadband comes from a motley group of activists such as the Berkman Center, Free Press, the New America Foundation, all of whom want a nationalised telcomms infrastructure. In 2008 Free Press called for $44bn of tax money to be diverted to building out fast pipes.

When the US deficit is so stretched that medical aid for the poor is questioned, this is a strange priority. Academics Tim Wu and Susan Crawford, the latter in her book "Captive Audience", insist the duopoly is in fact a monopoly, which should then be seized.

As ITIF notes, this is ideological. and their arguments bear little resemblance to reality. "Crawford and Wu [are] law professors, not historians, economists, or technologists, after all". They also tend to be curiously selective about monopolies. They imagine them where they are not (a cable/fibre duopoly becomes a 'monopoly' in Crawfordland), but ignore them where they are entrenched.

Bear in mind that Google is a major financial contributor to many of these groups, who "sock puppet" on its behalf. Google's strategy is to destroy markets where the value they create may imperil its own advertising monopoly - new markets for digital cultural goods, being one example. The world needs competition at the access layer and at the services layer - it needs both telecomms and Googles.

Tough regulation should ensure customers can switch easily, that where there's a duopoly it's scrutinized for cartel-style pricing, and wholesale markets are encouraged.

Transferring an access duopoly into a vertically-integrated Google monopoly is a strange thing to wish for. Is this what Americans really want? ®

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