Wednesday, January 30, 2013

America's dreadful Internet

A few weeks ago I blogged a review of Susan Crawford's important book Captive Audience about how awful broadband service is in the US--barely extant in some places, with one or maybe two providers elsewhere. (See Jell-O and US Broadband Inferiority.) The lack of competition in densely populated areas, and the lack of regulations or incentives from the government to force service to be diffused in rural areas, mean that with very rare exceptions, service in the US is much slower that it is in many  developed countries. And because cable is the dominant medium, where fast service exists it is highly asymmetrical: optimized for customers to receive video, not for them to upload large files. I noted that even in Boston, my ophthalmologist cannot send retinal scans from one of his offices to another. 

After I published that review, a friend in the cable industry directed me to a Wall Street Journal review by a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute that comes to a rather different conclusion. (See The Joys of Oligopoly.) Crawford doesn't understand economics, says the reviewer, and doesn't know much history either. The government should keep its hands off the Internet service market.
[T]he bipartisan deregulation movement of the 1970s and early 1980s that liberated trucking, airlines and telecommunications from choking regulation was a moment of reckoning, an attempt to come to terms, at last, with the legacy of progressive regulation. It wasn't often that Ted Kennedy and Ronald Reagan joined hands in common cause, but they did in this case. The practical shortcomings of regulation were overwhelming.
 The reviewer doesn't actually say whether he expects service to get better, or whether the US could ever hope to rise to the level of connectivity in, say Finland (to take a place with plenty of sparse country).

Today, god bless 'em, the WSJ has a stunning article about how the ISP for small-town America is … McDonald's. Not for watching movies: for kids in public schools writing papers. I mentioned in my review that students need to go to the public libraries in many areas to get Internet service, if it is unavailable or too slow residentially. This article adds a new twist: When the libraries close (and of course they close early, where municipal budgets are under stress), students go to fast food restaurants, sometimes studying over Cokes and hamburgers, and sometimes simply sitting in cars in the parking lots, within reach of the WiFi signal. (The Web-Deprived Study at McDonald's. I am sorry that this is behind a paywall.) Here is the beginning:

CITRONELLE, Ala.—Joshua Edwards's eighth-grade paper about the Black Plague came with a McDouble and fries. 
Joshua sometimes does his homework at a McDonald's restaurant—not because he is drawn by the burgers, but because the fast-food chain is one of the few places in this southern Alabama city of 4,000 where he can get online access free once the public library closes. 
Cheap smartphones and tablets have put Web-ready technology into more hands than ever. But the price of Internet connectivity hasn't come down nearly as quickly. And in many rural areas, high-speed Internet through traditional phone lines simply isn't available at any price. The result is a divide between families that have broadband constantly available on their home computers and phones, and those that have to plan their days around visits to free sources of Internet access. 
That divide is becoming a bigger problem now that a fast Internet connection has evolved into an essential tool for completing many assignments at public schools. Federal regulators identified the gap in home Internet access as a key challenge for education in a report in 2010. Access to the Web has expanded since then, but roughly a third of households with income of less than $30,000 a year and teens living at home still don't have broadband access there, according to the Pew Research Center.
What a disgrace. And good for the WSJ for reporting it.

Added 1/31:  I just noticed that this story was written by Anton Troianovski, a former Crimson reporter. Anton covered the most important faculty meeting of the Summers years, in which several professors challenged the president over what Farish Jenkins, may he rest in peace, referred to as the "tawdry Shleifer affair."


  1. The differences really are pretty stunning. I spent a year in Berlin, where I had 10MB internet service to go along with my phone service -- which included free calling to the US -- all for 20 euros a month (about US $26). There were plenty of services competing for business.

    On the other hand, it did take them three weeks from the time I signed up until the service was active.

  2. I'm always amazed that in US the cost for internet is so high. I live in Romania and my home internet connection is 100Mb/s via fiber optics and costs about 7$. On mobile I have 21Mb/s connection for 6$.

  3. A couple more passages to go with these comments.

    Joshua Edwards made multiple visits to the same McDonald's to work on papers this school year. His mother, Linda Edwards, says she already pays a large portion of her monthly budget for telecommunications: more than $150 for cellphones for herself and an older son, and $55 for satellite television, out of a $1,200 Social Security check. She said she couldn't afford the $250 deposit she would need to get satellite Internet for her trailer home off a dirt road about 15 minutes outside Citronelle.

    Jennifer LaBrenz, a single mom who has take-home income of roughly $2,000 a month, a year ago was paying close to $300 a month for home phone and Internet, satellite television and smartphones for herself and her oldest daughter.

    To cut costs, she canceled home phone and Internet service. That is why she parked her Suzuki outside Mr. Lezotte's restaurant one evening this fall. While her daughter Olivia was balancing her computer on her lap in the passenger seat, Ms. LaBrenz tapped out a Facebook post on her phone: "Sitting McDonald's parking lot so Olivia can use Wi-Fi to do homework and email her teacher. I love the poor life."

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