|There’s gonna be a collision, the world is going fast.|
A mortgaged future meets a bankrupt past. - Larry Norman
I’ve written before about the perplexing short-sightedness in the U.S. towards alternate energy sources, rising gas costs, and the sleeping dragon that is peak oil. It’s hardly the only way in which our country is favouring the trivial as the big picture grows murkier by the day. Global warming comes to mind. So does a starving continent of people who are 40 percent Muslim and who might understandably hold a grudge against us someday for not doing much about that. So does our $8 trillion of debt. Those are the sorts of issues that are really going to matter someday. But by the time we get around to taking those issues seriously, I fear it will be much too late. (That’s, incidentally, one reason why George Bush is no better at leadership than he was at being a National Guardsman. And why John Kerry wouldn’t have been much better. Any President who doesn’t make these sorts of issues a major priority is, quite frankly, living with his or her head in the sand.)
At any rate, those playing at home can add another category to the U.S. Fails to Take the 21st Century Seriously Score Card: Wi-Fi. Broadband Internet is a major component of tomorrow’s society, particularly its economy. And, apparently, we’re getting our collective ass kicked.
Note Robert W. McChesney and John Podesta:
Most people know broadband as an alternative to their old, slow dial-up Internet connection. These high-capacity data networks made of fiber-optic cables provide a constant, unbroken connection to the Internet. But broadband is about much more than checking your email or browsing on eBay. In the near future, telephone, television, radio and the web all will be delivered to your home via a single broadband connection. In the not-so-distant-future, broadband will be an indispensable part of economic, personal, and public life. Those countries that achieve universal broadband are going to hold significant advantages over those who don't. And so far, the United States is poised to be a follower -- not a leader -- in the broadband economy.As I pointed out when writing about oil and gas, I have to think that we're attached enough to our current lifestyle that we'll come out on top in the end. But I also have to wonder if isn't about time we started looking for a leader who actually knows how to lead.
American residents and businesses now pay two to three times as much for slower and poorer quality service than countries like South Korea or Japan. Since 2001, according to the International Telecommunications Union, the United States has fallen from fourth to 16th in the world in broadband penetration. Thomas Bleha recently argued in Foreign Affairs that what passes for broadband in the United States is "the slowest, most expensive and least reliable in the developed world." While about 60 percent of U.S. households do not subscribe to broadband because it is either unavailable where they live or they cannot afford it, most Japanese citizens can access a high-speed connection that's more than 10 times faster than what's available here for just $22 a month. (Japan is now rolling out ultra-high speed access at more than 500 times what the Federal Communications Commission considers to be "broadband" in this country.)
The economic ramifications are profound. "Asians will have the first crack at developing the new commercial applications, products, services, and content of the high-speed-broadband era," writes Bleha. Already, South Korea, which leads the world in the percentage of its businesses and homes with broadband, is the number one developer of online video games -- perhaps the fastest-growing industry today. What's more, societies in which broadband use is near-universal will adapt to its uses much more quickly than those where access is available only to the well-to-do few.
The countries surpassing the United States in broadband deployment did so by using a combination of public entities and private firms. The Japanese built their world-class system by ensuring "open access" to residential telephone lines, meaning competitors paid the same wholesale price to use the wires. The country is also establishing a super-fast, nationwide fiber system via a combination of tax breaks, debt guarantees and subsidies. But of particular note, the Japanese government also encouraged municipalities to build their own networks, especially in rural areas. Towns and villages willing to set up their own ultra-high-speed fiber networks received government subsidies covering approximately one-third of their costs.
Unfortunately, the United States has pursued the opposite policy. President Bush has called for "universal, affordable access for broadband technology by the year 2007," and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin claims broadband deployment is his "highest priority." But they have made no progress toward these goals; in fact, they have rewarded their corporate cronies for maintaining high prices, low speeds and lackluster innovation. Federal policies have not merely failed to correct our broadband problems, they have made them worse. Instead of encouraging competition, the FCC has allowed DSL providers and cable companies to shut out competitors by denying access to their lines. And whereas the Japanese government encourages individual towns to set up their own "Community Internet," Washington has done nothing. Fourteen states in the United States now have laws on the books restricting cities and towns from building their own high-speed Internet networks. No wonder America is falling behind its Asian competitors.