RUSH HOUR: Cisco Systems, which makes most of the networking equipment over which the Internet runs, predicts that Internet-protocol (IP)–based traffic will increase 4.3 fold between 2009 and 2014 worldwide, to the point where 750 exabytes (an exabyte is one billion gigabytes) of data per month are coursing through the Net. Image: © PETER NGUYEN, VIA ISTOCKPHOTO.COM
The Internet has ushered in an era of largely unfettered access to a wide variety of information. Yet, although so much of what the Internet has to offer is gratis, access to the Internet itself has never been free. This dichotomy lies at the heart of the prolonged and hairy "net neutrality" debate over what Internet service providers (ISPs) should charge for their services and what role those companies should play in managing the flow of information over their infrastructures.
Flat-rate versus tiered-pricing structures, data equality versus prioritized content—the arguments rage on in the U.S. with no end in sight, even as other high-tech countries, South Korea in particular, claim to successfully moved beyond the issue.
Full speed ahead in South Korea
South Korea, regarded as the world's leading country in terms of making high-speed broadband Internet access available to its 50 million citizens, offers basic and premium network access to broadband subscribers, Tae-Yol Yoo, executive vice president of Korea Telecom (KT), said October 15 during a telecommunications forum The State of Telecom—2010 at Columbia University in New York City. "If somebody wants to load some premium content (such as a video), they can do it on the premium network," he said. "Of course, they pay for it."
Net neutrality (flat-rate pricing and equal priority status given to all data) was not a successful business model for KT, Yoo said. KT tried usage-based pricing, where subscribers paid for the amount of bandwidth they consumed, but abandoned that effort two years ago, in part because 5 percent of Internet users in that country were hogging 50 percent of all Internet bandwidth. These super users were slowing down traffic for everyone else, making other customers less likely to use (and pay for) Internet access.
Instead KT separated its Internet backbone into a premium service that functions like a fast-paced superhighway for video, multimedia and other heavy traffic, and a basic service for most normal users. As the name would imply, premium customers pay more for use of the service. In return, KT assures them that it will provide data transfers at a particular speed.
The cost of KT's premium service? Roughly $28 per month. Yoo said his company must keep prices low due to competition from the country's two other major telecommunications companies.
South Korea has ranked first for the past three years in global broadband quality surveys conducted jointly by the University of Oxford's Saïd Business School and Cisco Systems, the latest of which was released last week. Nearly 100 percent of the country's 16.7 million households are broadband subscribers. More than 80 percent of the country currently has access to broadband speeds of 100 megabits per second, Yoo said. Average speeds across the country, according to the Saïd–Cisco study, are 33 megabits-per-second for download and about 17 megabits-per-second for uploads.
The South Korean government is promising to deliver one gigabit-per-second network connection speeds for fixed-line (as opposed to wireless) broadband to every home within three years, according to Yoo. One way it plans to meet this lofty goal is to build out its fiber-optic infrastructure. Today, more than half of broadband lines are fiber-optic cable, the rest are slower copper wire. Another important component of South Korea's broadband delivery strategy (for both fixed lines and wireless) is to offload as much data traffic as possible from its main infrastructure onto microcell or femtocell networks located in homes and local businesses.
Stuck in neutral
In the U.S., where the net neutrality debate is still very much alive, about 75 percent of households have a broadband connection and those connections have average download speeds of about 9.6 megabits per second and upload speeds of about two megabits per second, according to the Saïd–Cisco study. (A study released in September by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, or GAO, estimated that more than 90 percent of U.S. households have broadband access.) Either way, both studies rank the U.S. 15th among developed nations in terms of universal broadband access.
The U.S.'s performance is the result of a number of factors, not the least of which is the country's physical size. The U.S. has more broadband subscriber lines than any other country, but it also has a lot more territory to cover than Japan, which is number two in terms of broadband subscriber lines, according to the GAO report. Japan, however, is about the size of California. Likewise, top-ranked South Korea's infrastructure needs to cover a landmass only slightly larger than Indiana.