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Originally published Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: Moving from an age of Internet scarcity to abundance

Providing an abundance of Internet access would spark a wave of innovation, writes guest columnist Christopher Mitchell.

Special to The Times

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Good article. Comcast et. al. are using their local monopolies to stifle innovation and... MORE
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CONSIDER your last electrical appliance purchase. Did you pause to think if your home could handle the increased electrical demand? No, because our electrical networks are built around the principle of abundance, not scarcity.

If the massive cable companies ran our electrical grid like they do their broadband networks, we would have to do without air conditioning, which puts a heavy strain on the grid during peak demand. In contrast, the cable networks get congested during periods of peak activity, failing to deliver the “up to” speed promised in their advertising.

Some new network builders are embracing a different approach, one that has major implications for the future of innovation: adopting a business model of abundance rather than scarcity.

In Tennessee, the city of Chattanooga owns and operates one of the most advanced citywide broadband networks in the nation. Google is making a gigabit the standard connection in Kansas City. And Seattle is helping Gigabit Squared offer gigabit-speed services to 14 neighborhoods, including areas of the University District, South Lake Union, Capitol Hill, Rainier Beach, Ballard, West Seattle and Beacon Hill.

The big cable and telephone companies have responded by saying they see no demand for such fast networks because there are so few applications that require blazing fast connections. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski disagrees and has called for at least one gigabit network in each state by 2015.

Even without developing new applications, faster networks offer tremendous promise for new innovation, faster economic growth and a higher quality of life. Consider a highway that allows cars to crawl along when at peak capacity. The user experience is far superior at half capacity, when cars can whiz along. The same principle holds true with Internet connections.

We don’t need next-generation 4K ultra-high-definition TV programming to justify new networks, but the content is on the way. And in the meantime, imagine no longer waiting for the network, whether sending a large business document or uploading a family video. Spend an hour using one of these connections and you quickly realize how much time is wasted on a slower connection.

This should be the Age of Internet Abundance — when we have universal access to fast, reliable and affordable Internet connections.

But at least one industry is scrambling to preserve the Age of Internet Scarcity — cable and telecom companies that have de facto monopolies and are recording record high profit margins. The lack of choices for Internet connections enables them to defer investment and keep prices artificially high for faster connections.

Even more worrisome, Time Warner Cable, AT&T and others are creating bandwidth caps that restrict how much data a connection can use in a month. These policies are all but useless for managing congestion, but they handsomely pad profits.

Responding to the lack of investment by cable and telephone companies, more than 100 local governments (which does not include Seattle), Google and some other innovative companies have invested in ultrafast networks and make services available at affordable prices. They aren’t simply building faster networks; they are building abundant networks. And rather than capping access, they want to ensure everyone has better Internet access to better educational outcomes, encourage economic growth and improve quality of life.

More than in most states, public investments in robust electrical and fiber-optic infrastructure have brought major investments in data centers to Washington. The big cable and phone companies have had their chance and should stop obstructing other entities. That way, everyone would benefit from this infrastructure.

D.C. could help with the transition to abundance. Expanding unlicensed spectrum would allow innovators to create a new generation of more powerful tools similar to Wi-Fi, greatly expanding access to low-cost, fast wireless networks.

Just as free public roads and low-cost universal electricity supercharged American economic growth in the 21st century, so can the Age of Internet Abundance now. I don’t know the maximum number of amps that can flow into my house and I don’t care. Soon, I hope to say the same thing about my megabits ... or even gigabits.

Christopher Mitchell is the director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis and the editor of MuniNetworks.org. Follow him @communitynets

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