Web & communication software

The Embarrassment of American Broadband

The Internet was born and raised in the United States. Yet--thanks to slow speeds, inconsistent availability, and bandwidth caps--we now lag the rest of the world when it comes to broadband Net access.

Slow and limited

According to Point Topic (a UK-based market-research company), there were 79 million broadband subscribers in the U.S. at the end of 2008--that's 19 percent of the world's total, second only to China's 83 million. (The report defines broadband as anything faster than 256Kbps.) However, at roughly 26 percent, the U.S. ranked 22nd out of 113 countries in terms of broadband penetration by population.

And in a separate study, the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) recently estimated that (as of June 2008) 25 percent of the U.S. population had broadband access, ranking the U.S. 15th out of the OECD's 30 member countries.

To be fair, the U.S. has a population of more than 300 million spread out over more than 3.5 million square miles. That's a lot of people and a lot of space to cover. But it's pathetic that roughly three-quarters of the people in this country don't have broadband Internet service.

The speed and price of broadband in the U.S. is shameful as well. In my San Francisco neighborhood, the fastest available DSL service is 3Mbps downstream and 512Kbps upstream for US$25 a month. In my previous SF location, which was closer to a central office, I could get 6Mbps down and 768Kbps up. By comparison, Macworld contributor Kirk McElhearn, who lives in the French Alps, gets DSL with speeds of 6Mbps down and close to 1Mbps up for €30 a month (about $40); that includes free VoIP phone service within France. If he didn't live in a semi-rural area, his service would be even faster.

Of course, I do have alternatives to DSL. My local cable carrier (Comcast) says I could get its Internet service--up to 12Mbps downstream--for $43 a month; for $67 a month, I could get up to 16Mbps. But those 'up tos' are important: The fine print admits that "actual speeds vary and are not guaranteed." With cable service, speeds can vary widely, depending on such factors as the number of your neighbors who are online. And the fine prints explains that the max "boost" speeds only apply to the download and upload of the first 10MB and 5MB of a file, respectively (upload speeds range between 384Kbps and 2Mbps, depending on your package).

Another option, Verizon's fiber optic service (FiOS), offers download speeds between 10Mbps and 50Mbps and upload speeds between 2Mbps and 20Mbps for $50 to $145 a month. But FiOS isn't available in San Francisco--or, for that matter, anywhere in northern California. In fact, FiOS Internet service is currently available in only 17 states. It has been slow getting to the rest of us because it's costly and time-consuming to lay the fibre necessarily to make it work. I cringe with jealously whenever senior editor Rob Griffiths mentions the (relatively) outrageous speeds he gets from his FiOS connection outside of Portland, Oregon.

As if the (comparatively) slow speed weren't bad enough, your Internet service may also be subject to bandwidth restrictions. As of October 2008, Comcast now has a 250GB per month cap on bandwidth for residential users. You might think you'd never get close to that 250GB ceiling. But in a multimedia world, files are only getting bigger, and you could feel cramped much sooner than you might think.

Time Warner Cable announced a trial program in several American cities that goes even further. Under that program, the company would offer tiered plans starting at 1GB of bandwidth per month; go over your allotment and you'll be charged $1 or $2 per gigabyte of overage, depending on your plan. (Public outcry has now forced TWC to shelve those plans).

Download an HD version of the James Bond flick Casino Royale from the iTunes Store, for example, and you'll have consumed 4.6GB right there. Uploading full-sized photos and HD videos to places such as Flickr or YouTube or backing up your Mac to an online service will chew up your bandwidth allotment pretty quick, too. In today's online-centric world, bandwidth caps make no sense.

Help on the way?

But American broadband is not entirely hopeless. The Pew Internet & American Life Project reported in July 2008 that 55 percent of adult Americans now have high-speed Internet connections at home. And the federal government would like do something about broadband availability as well. The stimulus package passed in February included $7.2 billion for "competitive grants to accelerate broadband deployment in unserved and underserved areas and to strategic institutions."

Under the law, the Federal Communications Commission has until February 2010 to develop a national broadband plan. If you have an opinion, you can share it with the FCC by visiting the Electronic Comment File Submission page and entering 09-51 in the box under Proceeding.

But put that spending in context: Australia recently announced it would spend almost $31 billion to help set up a national broadband network. The goal: to make sure at least 90 percent of the country has access at 100Mbps by 2018. South Korea plans to invest more than $25 billion to increase wired broadband speeds to a staggering 1Gbps, with wireless speeds topping out at 10Mbps, by 2012. (This in a country where 100Mbps downloads are already the norm.)

Private companies are also investing in broadband infrastructure. AT&T and Verizon have been expanding the reach and speeds of their respective broadband wireless networks (such as the 3G networking enjoyed by iPhone 3G users on AT&T). But there are still big holes in the coverage maps, and clearly we're playing catch-up to parts of Europe and Asia. Technologies such as FiOS will become more widespread--but that's years away.

And when it comes to caps, not only have rising protests forced Time Warner Cable to alter its plans, but Eric Massa, a congressman from New York, also plans to introduce an anti download cap bill (the poetically named Massa Broadband Internet Fairness Act) to prohibit unfair tiered price structures from internet providers, as well as encourage competition.

The bottom line? There are lots of excuses for it, but no good reasons why we can't do a better job as a nation of making sure fast, affordable broadband is as ubiquitous and easy to obtain as electricity, water, snail-mail, or any other utility.

[Jonathan Seff is a senior editor at Macworld.]

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