For the past few years, a common complaint among tech circles is that Internet access in the United States is slow and spotty, especially when compared to the rest of the world. It all started to change last year when Google Fiber launched in Kansas City thus inspiring other cities to ditch corporate monopolies, and offer their residents better speeds at half the price. Despite the rise in gigabit connectivity, a new report finds that the United States is still well behind the curve when it comes to Internet access and speeds.
The New York Times reports that Internet access in the United States has been the focus of multiple studies over the last year as more and more think tanks try to diagnose and solve our Internet problem. Funny enough, most would agree that the U.S. is behind. The problem is that many don't feel that we're so behind that improving Internet access and speeds needs to be a priority moving forward.
While ISPs and other cable providers will tell you that current speeds are good enough, the Obama administration says that "fast, affordable and reliable broadband service" is needed to "create jobs and grow wages at home." Unfortunately, the administration and ISPs continue to classify "broadband" as anything above 10 Mbps - speeds which are easily and affordably achieved in most metro areas.
So, what's the big deal if we're already hitting the target of what the government considers broadband speeds? It's all a matter of competition really. Future jobs are moving to the Web and a fast, reliable Internet connection will be the difference between a company scoring a lucrative contract or losing out to another firm. The economy is increasingly going global and faster Internet speeds in Eastern Europe and Asia will ensure that they stay one step ahead of the American companies that either don't have access to or can't afford enterprise Internet connections.
Besides the issue of speed, access is also a big issue. The New York Times points to data that says over 70 percent of South San Antonio residents don't have access to the Internet at home. As schools and other public institutions increasingly move their work online, those without will be left behind.
So, how can we improve Internet access and speeds? Well, it's certainly easier said than done. The U.S. is a large nation and most of its metropolitan infrastructures were put in place before the rise of broadband Internet. Such a scenario makes it hard to convince ISPs to invest in all new infrastructure when what's already there is good enough for what they offer.
To help the American Internet better compete with the world, Susan Crawford, a law professor at Yeshiva University, argues that we have to completely rethink how we classify the Internet. Since its inception, the Internet has gone from a luxury to a commodity. From there, it can only evolve into a utility and it needs to do that before it becomes accessible enough to make a difference.
Just think, clean water and electricity both started out as luxuries that only the wealthy could afford. As civilization progressed, they became more affordable and accessible to the point that they became utilities. As citizens of a modern world, we have an expectation of clean water and electricity. It's argued that the Internet should be viewed in much the same way - as a basic human right. The United Nations said just as much in 2011 when it issued a report calling for nations to recognize that Internet access is a fundamental human right.
Despite all this, you're probably not going to see Internet access or speeds improving anytime soon. Most cities are still kept under the thumb of monopolistic telecoms that can charge whatever they want as they know consumers have nowhere else to go. Google Fiber and local municipalities are trying to change that one city at a time, but progress is slow. Until then, American consumers will continue to be extorted by their friendly Internet and cable provider.
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