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See Inside October 2010

Why Broadband Service in the U.S. Is So Awful

And one step that could change it



Illustration by Peter and Maria Hoey

The average U.S. household has to pay an exorbitant amount of money for an Internet connection that the rest of the industrial world would find mediocre. According to a recent report by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, broadband Internet service in the U.S. is not just slower and more expensive than it is in tech-savvy nations such as South Korea and Japan; the U.S. has fallen behind infrastructure-challenged countries such as Portugal and Italy as well.

The consequences are far worse than having to wait a few extra seconds for a movie to load. Because broadband connections are the railroads of the 21st century—essential infrastructure required to transmit products (these days, in the form of information) from seller to buyer—our creaky Internet makes it harder for U.S. entrepreneurs to compete in global markets. As evidence, consider that the U.S. came in dead last in another recent study that compared how quickly 40 countries and regions have been progressing toward a knowledge-based economy over the past 10 years. “We are at risk in the global race for leadership in innovation,” FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said recently. “Consumers in Japan and France are paying less for broadband and getting faster connections. We’ve got work to do.”

It was not always like this. A decade ago the U.S. ranked at or near the top of most studies of broadband price and performance. But that was before the FCC made a terrible mistake. In 2002 it reclassified broadband Internet service as an “information service” rather than a “telecommunications service.” In theory, this step implied that broadband was equivalent to a content provider (such as AOL or Yahoo!) and was not a means to communicate, such as a telephone line. In practice, it has stifled competition.

Phone companies have to compete for your business. Even though there may be just one telephone jack in your home, you can purchase service from any one of a number of different long-distance providers. Not so for broadband Internet. Here consumers generally have just two choices: the cable company, which sends data through the same lines used to deliver television signals, and the phone company, which uses older telephone lines and hence can only offer slower service.

The same is not true in Japan, Britain and the rest of the rich world. In such countries, the company that owns the physical infrastructure must sell access to independent providers on a wholesale market. Want high-speed Internet? You can choose from multiple companies, each of which has to compete on price and service. The only exceptions to this policy in the whole of the 32-nation Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development are the U.S., Mexico and the Slovak Republic, although the Slovaks have recently begun to open up their lines.

A separate debate—over net neutrality, the principle that Internet providers must treat all data equally regardless of their origin or content—has put the broadband crisis back in the spotlight. Earlier this year a federal appeals court struck down the FCC’s plan to enforce net neutrality, saying that because the FCC classified the Internet as an information service, it does not have any more authority to ensure that Internet providers treat all content equally than it does to ensure that CNN treats all political arguments equally. In response, the FCC announced its intention to reclassify broadband Internet as a telecommunications service. The move would give the FCC power to enforce net neutrality as well as open broadband lines up to third-party competition, enabling free markets to deliver better service for less money.

Yet, puzzlingly, the FCC wants to take only a half-step. Genachowski has said that although he regards the Internet as a telecommunications service, he does not want to bring in third-party competition. This move may have been intended to avoid criticism from policy makers, both Republican and Democrat, who have aligned themselves with large Internet providers such as AT&T and Comcast that stand to suffer when their local monopolies are broken. It is frustrating, however, to see Gena­chowski acknowledge that the U.S. has fallen behind so many other countries in its communications infrastructure and then rule out the most effective way to reverse the decline. We call on the FCC to take this important step and free the Internet.

Editor's note: This article was published in the October 2010 issue with the title, "Competition and the Internet."
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