Nov 7, 2012


Election recaps and summaries of the past term are cropping up this morning, so there's a lot of talk about what's changed and what we've all got to look forward to. There's long lists covering a wide spectrum of subjects, but I didn't expect to so quickly stumble across this bit about broadband access on Gizmodo:
Obama promised years ago to get broadband access "to every community in America." He's gotten closer than you'd think. According to PolitiFact, as of this spring about 95% of US homes had broadband access (although only 67% subscribe).
95% is a huge number-- I'm traveling to a place in my mind where nearly every human being in the country has the opportunity to call up and get really fast internet right to their house. I can see parents Skyping with their kids without interruption, TED talks streaming without buffering, and file transfers that don't have to happen over the course of the night. 95%?

After a little digging it seems I've taken for granted the shifting definition of broadband across providers and regions. It's an easy mistake to make, because whether I'm hooking up my internet connection in Los Angeles or West Virginia I call the ISP and ask for the same thing: "broadband." What I get, though, is vastly different.

Broadband as a technical term, it turns out, is similar to calling a car fast. Although the FCC updated its definition broadband in 2010 to describe a connection with a minimum 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream, what that translates to frequently falls short of expectations. In our instance, we pay for ("up to" as they say) 6 Mbps down / 2 MBps up, but in a speed test I performed just now, I've actually got 2.12 Mbps down / 0.71 Mbps up. This discrepancy is explained in part by the fact that we're also on a "shared connection" with every other subscriber in our region. This means all of us are sharing the same advertised bandwidth between us, and the more people there are online the less "speed" there is to go around. Our ISP doesn't make this a choice, and I can't pay for my own connection-- it's just the way it works. In short, only on a good day if no one else in town used the internet could we achieve the defined speeds of broadband. It seems only theoretical possibilities are required for service descriptions, which can lead to a lot of confusion for customers like me.

The FCC has a pretty nice website-- I snagged the above map of fixed broadband deployment after doing a quick search there for broadband information. It's pretty cool, or disheartening in my case, as you can zoom way in and check out access by county; where we are in West Virginia has 0% access. No wonder my speeds are so dismal, they don't appear even to exist.

The consequences of misunderstanding what our infrastructure is currently capable of makes future possibilities less awesome. While most of the population in dense urban and surrounding areas may have a strong connection, the outliers in "rural" areas have only thin threads connecting them to the web-- this isn't a job 95% done. Without strong connections to even the most distant camp, the workforce will cluster where the speeds are instead of venturing out to more personal  or practical lifestyles with the ISPs in tow.