(This was part of an email discussion on Gordon Cook’s Arch-Econ list, slightly modified for your blogging pleasure)
The US Broadband network is “good enough” to be satisfactory for nearly every practical purpose. 1 to 2meg speeds with decent latency is good enough for voip, telecommuting, vpn networks and 99% of the practical uses for a broadband connection. It is not quite fast enough to do full screen, full motion videoconferencing and it is not quite practical enough to deliver streaming HD Video content, and that is about it.
Case in point – I have a 100meg fiber connection at my office. It is great for videoconferencing and downloading large files, but 99.99% of the time, I don’t need that much bandwidth. I can do pretty much anything I need to do on my 4meg home connection. My five year old pickup gets me where I need to go – from a practical standpoint it has the same utility as a new pickup – or a Ferrari for that matter. Not everyone needs a Ferrari to get to work.
More bandwidth is required for the content companies to continue to feed garbage to zombie consumers on the other side, that is the real motivation for higher speeds. Looks like it has done a lot of good for South Korea, where an entire generation of kids are turning into gaming zombies on the other ends of their world class broadband connections. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jul/13/internet-addiction-south-korea. Several years ago, I had an employee that I was pretty sure had some kind of a drug habit. He was habitually late, seemed to be constantly overstressed and was always making mistakes in his work. After watching his work habits degrade over a period of 45 days, I stopped by my NOC at 4am on a Sunday morning and found him camped out there playing Everquest. He had been there since 7pm on Friday night, fueled by cigarettes, Mountain Dew and pizza. I have several friends who have similar problems controlling their gaming habits, and I have had my own issues with it.
Secondly, far too few people in the fields of law, academia and policy have enough appreciation for the fact that networks are not free. It costs money to build, maintain and expand networks and there has to be an appropriate return for the companies that maintain these networks, and that is not understood very well by people who plug their computer in and just get their connectivity without thinking about where it comes from. Spend a week in my shoes and you might have a little different appreciation for the effort needed to deliver broadband. I am just as disgusted as anyone else that AT&T, Verizon et.al are banking enormous profits on their networks when they should be putting that back in to reinvestment, but the real problem is that we don’t have competition that forces them to reinvest.
I am not against better broadband networks for the US, but I am against misplaced allocation of financial resources in the form of the stimulus program and USF subsidies to telcos that claim they are needed to improve our broadband standing in the world. We need more spectrum and fewer restriction on what independent operators can or can’t do with their networks. We also need patience – its going to take time to get fiber to every home and we should continue to expand access to “good enough” networks to the people who don’t have any alternatives.
My preference is to continue building toward the ultimate goal of broadband abundance, but to do it in a financially responsible way that encourages more competition and less government assistance. I recognize that faster broadband has benefits, but those benefits are trivial compared to the problems of climate change, energy resources and food production. Broadband doesn’t benefit anyone if that person can’t eat, doesn’t have electricity to run their computer or happens to be dead. That is my reasoning as to why broadband access should not be so high on the list of priorities.