Imagine paying $40 per gallon of gasoline when people in neighboring towns are paying $4. Or paying $8 per kilowatt-hour for electricity when others were paying 8 cents. Unthinkable! But this stark disparity is commonplace when it comes to paying for Internet access in the United States. As the recent report “The Cost of Connectivity” from the New America Foundation (a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense) documents, something is fundamentally wrong with our broadband.
Businesses and households without fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet are tremendously disadvantaged in the modern economy. And the gap between the most connected and least connected communities is actually getting worse. Some homeowners in North Carolina are reluctant to publicly discuss their total lack of broadband access due to fears of being unable to later sell their property.
When one looks at how the United States is doing internationally, it's clear that our broadband policies over the past decade have been an abject failure. In a single generation, the United States has gone from No. 1 in the world across a range of broadband metrics to middling—a staggeringly fast fall. Today, we pay far more for far slower speeds in far fewer places than a growing list of other countries.
And this fact undermines our long-term global competitiveness. We cannot have a robust 21st-century economy without affordable, ubiquitous broadband, as many peer nations—like France, Latvia, Japan, and Romania—have long understood. It sometimes feels like our economy is the only issue in political debates, so when are the candidates going to move beyond empty rhetoric and propose concrete plans to create universal, affordable access to real broadband connectivity?
The solution from President Obama’s Federal Communications Commission has been to give more subsidies to the same big companies that have largely failed to invest in the networks we need. The real kicker? These federal subsidies will often be used to extend already obsolete DSL lines rather than invest in next-generation connections.
In the meantime, local communities are taking matters into their own hands and have created remarkable citywide fiber-to-the-home broadband networks. Many offer services directly to residents, providing a much-needed alternative to the cable and telephone companies. And by creating meaningful consumer choice among competitors, these networks are driving lower prices—spurring new investment and creating new jobs—and keeping more money circulating in the local economy.