American Culture

Broadband is everywhere in Taiwan–why not the U.S.?

By Martin Bosworth

GigaOm’s Om Malik points to a story detailing how broadband access is available for practically every city and community in Taiwan. This is a tremendous accomplishment for any country and one to be proud of, but it also draws more attention to the fact that the United States–supposedly the technological leader and innovator of the free world–is falling further and further behind in its adoption of broadband Internet services nationwide.

Emerging markets represent the next frontier for broadband, with some analysts estimating that nearly one-fifth of the world’s population will have broadband access of some kind by the end of 2008. Think about that. Nearly one in every six people across the entire planet will be able to use the Internet far more richly than dial-up could ever allow. That’s immeasurable potential for creating, consuming, and contributing content.

Meanwhile, fully half of America’s citizens do not have any broadband access. As Benton Foundation head Charles Benton noted, the deadline set by President Bush to achieve nationwide broadband availability for all Americans has long since passed, with little to show for it. Quoth Benton:

“Claiming that our nation’s broadband deployment is on track when millions are disconnected and America is falling further behind is a little like standing on a flight deck and claiming ‘mission accomplished.’ The facts just don’t support it.”

As I detailed in my statement of principles for America’s broadband future,  low-income and middle-income Americans are being deprived of the chance to partake in that glorious engine of creation and commerce that is the Internet. Imagine all the jobs, ideas, and participation we’re losing–all the art, creation, and vision that isn’t happening because thousands of families and communities are stuck with snail-paced Internet access.  Hell, even if it’s just to look at porn and silly Web comics, people should still have the option to choose broadband, and not be denied it by default.

The front-runner Democratic candidates have all correctly tied lack ofbroadband access to America’s failing leadership in innovation, and have put forth policies to address this to one level or another. (Here’re statements from Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards–Obama has the clearest and most detailed policy platform on this issue that I can see.) This is probably too wonky a topic to make it into the forefront of a debate, but then again, who would have thought the issue of net neutrality would have been such a front-burner issue?

Americans recognize that we’re lagging behind in our broadband access, and we want change. Countries like Taiwan are making it happen, and we can adopt their successes to the unique challenges America faces in order to give everyone the chance to make full use of the Internet, and share their innovations and ideas with the world.

Simply put, we can’t afford not to.

6 replies »

  1. I agree that part of the problem is lack of leadership here, but there are pragmatic issues as well that leadership cannot address. Trenching for new high-speed wires or fibers is the most expensive thing any company or local government can do, especially across a country the size of the United Stated. Free-space wireless or optical links can help, but due to FCC and safety limitations, they have serious range issues outside of major metropolitan areas.

    We’re lagging, yes, but don’t lay all that blame on the Republicans and Bush’s lack of leadership. That’s an oversimplification of a difficult problem. This issue cannot be effectively tackled without serious new funding commitments over the course of 5-10 years – any suggestions where we find the money?

  2. I say what I always say: Draw down our forces in Iraq and that’ll fetch you a cool few billion right there.

    Don’t forget there’s a lot of “dark fiber” that has gone unused since it was laid down in the boom times of the early 90s. Google is buying up a lot of it for unknown purposes, but there’s still plenty to be made use of.

    And the major telecoms have the money to expand their already-existing initatives such as FIOS and U-Verse, but they’re public companies that answer to shareholders, and you’re right–such endeavors are hugely expensive. Thus the whole net neutrality issue–extorting money from content providers to cover the costs of buildouts. It’s especially ironic when you consider those buildouts were only going to rich areas anyway.

    The money’s there–everywhere from the Universal Service Fund to set-asides for local video franchises. It’s just being wasted and not directed with any sort of national plan.

  3. A cool few billion that need to go unspent – it’s all debt funded via “supplemental” spending bills.

    Last I heard (which was long enough ago I can’t find the reference at the moment), most of the dark fiber that was laid down had been snapped up and was in the process of being lit up. And it’s mostly between metropolitan areas, which aren’t the cost leaders anyway – getting broadband to rural areas is the killer.

  4. I think the last part of Arkansas got on the electrical grid as late as 1981 courtesy of the REA. Sometimes, laying all that cable takes time, especially with the large size of our country. Taiwan isn’t very large, if my memory of geography is accurate.

    Jeff

  5. As long as the money’s coming in from somewhere, that’s money that can be redirected for better causes–and broadband buildouts are as good a cause as any.

    If AT&T can spend upwards of $20 million to rebrand itself as “Cingular”–then another few million to dump said branding and revert to AT&T–it can afford to extend its reach and snap up some of that unused fiber. The USF alone pulls in millions of dollars a year with no oversight, and ends up being used as a telco slush fund. Returning that to its stated purpose and forcing that money to be spent where it’s meant to would mean a huge upfront cash flow to make it happen.

    Wireless is also a feasible alternative, though that’s expensive and spotty. But it can be done. Muni Wi-Fi isn’t working out terribly well in large cities, but in small cities in the Midwest and metro regions, it has great potential:

    http://www.bbwexchange.com/howto/1_broadband_wireless_isp_overview.asp
    http://www.xchangemag.com/webexclusives/62h28162218.html

    And Taiwan is about the size of Israel, which is, in turn, about the size of New Jersey. Not a terribly large country, but we’re not talking Guam here either. If we can wire up a state the size of New Jersey from end to end by 2010 or 2011, there’s nothing stopping us from trying the same out in the square states.

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