Having just read the New York Times story “Most of U.S. is Wired, but Millions Aren’t Plugged In,” I was reminded that even the top mainstream telecom journalists really have little understanding of what they write. This is a bit ranty but comes back together constructively at the end.
I just read that “nearly 98 percent of American homes now have access to some form of high-speed broadband.” Really? Just what exactly does that mean? It is definitely not the current FCC minimum standard speed required to engage in basic Internet activities: 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream. Not even close.
To get 98%, I can only assume that the author has started with flawed stats from the FCC that are comprised on systematically overstated DSL availability in rural areas by carriers like Windstream, Frontier, CenturyLink, and others. He likely then included satellite Internet access availability, which is explicitly not broadband due to the inevitable lag of a 50,000 mile roundtrip to geosynchronous orbiting satellites.
But we don’t know. We just know that Edward Wyatt knows that by some definition, nearly everyone in America has “high speed” broadband. This is news to the vast majority of rural communities I hear from, who see maps paid for by their tax dollars claiming they can get broadband in their homes. But when they call the company to get it, they find it is not actually available, even though that company had just told the government that it is available there.
These are the statistics that are now apparently official, without any need to even note where they come from. Note that this comes after the New York Times repeatedly erred in claiming few Europeans have access to high speed networks.
Wyatt goes on to laud the Obama Administration’s stimulus effort to expand broadband networks:
The Obama administration allocated $7 billion to broadband expansion as part of the 2009 economic stimulus package. Most of it went to build physical networks. About half of those infrastructure programs have been completed, with Internet availability growing to 98 percent of homes from fewer than 90 percent.
As far as federal programs go, this one worked pretty well at accomplishing its objectives. From what I could tell, a key objective was not overly upsetting existing carriers, which is why so much of the money was spent on middle mile connections that have recently been finished or are now being completed.
But very few households were directly served by the stimulus programs. NTIA chose to invest largely in middle mile networks that also connected community anchor institutions – rarely residents. If any last mile investment will result from the middle mile, it probably hasn’t been built yet because the middle mile has just been completed or will be soon.
So while the stimulus was certainly better than doing nothing, it has had little impact on the growth from the invented 90% statistic to the invented 98% statistic.
The grand conceit of the article is what big cable and telephone companies have been telling us for years – we don’t have an availability problem, the problem is that Americans just don’t take advantage of these awesome connections we want to sell them! To paraphrase something I heard Yochai Benkler once say, Americans are not stupid, if you give them a crap product at a high price, they won’t buy it.
The point of my frustration boils down to where we should focus our limited resources.
There is a real literacy component to the digital divide and that is a problem. However, solving that problem can be done with comparatively modest investments in programs to teach computer/technical/media literacy. This has been demonstrated by numerous foundations and others in civil society. Blandin Foundation in Minnesota does an excellent job of this. Existing Internet Service Providers can and should help fund these programs because it increases their customer base.
The danger of government focusing on the literacy divide rather than on actual availability, as some influential folks like Blair Levin have argued, is that solving the access divide – making fast, affordable, and reliable access truly available to 98% or more of US households – is a very challenging problem that civil society cannot solve and the private sector will not solve.
Some elected leaders LOVE to focus on the literacy divide because no one opposes those programs. That doesn’t mean it is a good use of resources. Sometimes using resources effectively means challenging a few powerful firms that will vigorously oppose any change to an intolerable status quo because they are banking historically high profits by creating artificial scarcity.
Government exists so we can do together what we cannot do alone. Examples include electrifying the entire nation, building roads, and eventually an interstate highway system. Government should be focused on ensuring just about every American has access to fast, affordable, and reliable networks. Not by bragging about deeply flawed statistics provided by self-interested corporations but by making the necessary investments at the local level.
This is my final point – different levels of government have different strengths. We don’t want to see a federal network. These networks should be responsive to communities, which means owned and operated locally. But the federal level needs to do its part in demanding accurate data that reflects the true nature of access to the Internet in America – not settling for whatever politically-connected firms want to offer.