Can the FCC fix America's crummy broadband network?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
March 22 2010 5:25 PM

Land of the Free, Home of Slow Internet

Can the FCC fix America's crummy broadband network?

Also in Slate, Chris Wilson questioned the wisdom of bringing high-speed Internet access to rural America.

Computer modem cable.
The future depends on broadband

The FCC's new National Broadband Plan is huge. That's true physically—at 360 pages, you'll need a fast Internet connection just to get the PDF —and as a matter of scope. The plan, released last week, sketches out a decade's worth of improvements to the nation's infrastructure that will transform how we get our news, entertainment, and phone service, and will improve pretty much every technology you own.

As Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, sees it, wiring the nation for superfast Internet connections will be as significant as setting up the national electricity grid 100 years ago. That's because the Internet, like electricity, is a foundational technology—it sits beneath a wide range of innovations, some that we can envision today and many we can't. "All text, all audio, all video is going to go over IP networks—why shouldn't it?" Genachowski told me in an interview. "Getting a universal electric grid rolled out all over the country led to a century's worth of new appliances. What we're starting to see now is a new generation of innovation, and instead of appliances it will be applications," Genachowski said. If we can just fix American broadband, he added, "the U.S. can lead in the creation and manufacturing of those applications."

But can we fix broadband? I've explained the shortcomings of America's Internet infrastructure many times—compared with our economic rivals, our Internet lines are generally slower, more expensive, and cover less of the country. The broadband plan's central goal is to make the United States the world's best-connected nation. It does not call for a significant taxpayer-funded investment in these new networks; instead, it outlines a series of rules and incentives to push the telecom industry to improve American broadband. By 2020, if this all comes to pass, 100 million households will have access to an "affordable" Internet connection with download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second (the average connection speed in the United States today is around 4 megabits per second). The plan also calls for schools, hospitals, and other community institutions to have broadband lines of 1 gigabit per second, and for the country to have the world's "fastest and most extensive" wireless Internet service, too.

These are huge goals, and I'd love for all of them to come true. Yet I am a bit skeptical that they're achievable, for a few reasons. First, there's the standard disclaimer that applies to all efforts to remake national infrastructure: Politics will get in the way. At this point, the broadband plan is simply a draft; Congress has to pass legislation for many of the plan's recommendations to take effect, and lobbyists from the cable, phone, and entertainment industries are sure to play a big role in that process.

Everyone who studies communications policy understands that there is one main way to improve the speed and reduce the price of Internet lines: Foster more competition between broadband companies. Today most Americans can choose between just two Internet providers—your phone company or your cable company. This is a recipe for stasis. Because we're pretty much trapped, neither provider has much incentive to create faster, cheaper lines. Can the FCC really do anything to improve that picture?

When I asked Genachowski about competition in broadband, he described a few major policies outlined in the plan. First, the FCC wants to educate people about the inadequacy of their current broadband lines. The agency has found that most Internet plans don't live up to the upload and download speeds they claim to deliver. Under the plan, the FCC would set up a regime to monitor the actual speeds of Internet lines; then it will show us a kind of broadband nutrition label when we go to select a new plan. The label would tell you how fast a line you're actually getting and would also explain what you could do on that plan. "It might say something like, For a YouTube video to work in small box without buffering, you'll need this speed, but for full-screen high definition video, you'll need this speed," Genachowski explained. These consumer labels, the FCC says, will have the same impact on broadband that miles-per-gallon disclosures had on the car industry—they allowed customers to seek out more efficient cars and in turn pushed car companies to emphasize efficiency.

The FCC also wants to open up more wireless space for the Internet. A lot of the country's radio spectrum is now in the hands of TV broadcasters. That doesn't make much sense—it's obvious that our economy will increasingly depend more on multipurpose, mobile devices like the iPad than on single-purpose devices like televisions. Better wireless Internet could also conceivably serve as an incentive for wired Internet providers to create better plans—after all, why would you subscribe to a home broadband plan if you've got really great mobile broadband service? Broadcasters have indicated, though, that they'll oppose the FCC's efforts—and if there's one industry that knows how to whip up outrage, it's the TV business. Just wait till Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann join forces to oppose the government's evil plan to take away Grandma's TV.

The tough road that the FCC faces in freeing up spectrum might explain why the agency doesn't mention some even more far-reaching efforts to bring competition to the broadband market. For instance, observers have long argued that the best way to create faster, cheaper Internet service is to impose "open access" rules on Internet providers. These rules would force companies that build lines to your home to sell access on those lines to competitors—so that many companies will be able to bring service to your home. As Yochai Benkler, the co-director of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, points out in the New York Times, many of the countries that have better service than the United States mandate such rules. "These countries realize that innovation happens in electronics and services—not in laying cable," Benkler writes.

But open access doesn't seem to be on the horizon for the FCC—at least not yet. Instead, the National Broadband Plan outlines a series of smaller-bore initiatives to reduce the cost of laying new fiber-optic lines. Genachowski says that these will prove consequential. "There is no silver bullet to any of the challenges," he said. "Even though it's not that exciting to focus on some of the blood and guts of infrastructure, these end up becoming very important."

Another obstacle standing in the way of a landmark broadband makeover is the American consumer. Today about 65 percent of people in the United States who have access to broadband actually sign up for plans. If 35 percent of Americans don't want even 4 megabit lines, then why should companies spend a fortune building out 100 megabit lines? This question is particularly important in a time of stretched resources. America's communications infrastructure isn't so great, but neither are our highways, our schools, our health care, and dozens of other things. Our broadband needs will inevitably be weighed against these other resources—and some people are sure to wonder whether, given all our other obligations, the Internet is really worth the government's time, money and effort.

But that gets back to why I'm so excited about Genachowski's plan. Even if we don't get 100 megabit access for all, it's still amazing that we've got a federal official fighting for such a broad goal. Though we've known for at least 10 years that the Internet will be the major driving force in our economy, Genachowski is the first FCC chairman to make broadband the agency's top priority. That in itself is cause for optimism. "This is the FCC's agenda for the foreseeable future," Genachowski told me. "We want the innovations to happen here, we want the job creation to happen here, and we want to export these applications around the world. That's going to be an essential strategy for our economic success in the 21st century."

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