Mar 4, 2013

Why We're Happy Enough With What We've Got

Ask "why?" enough times and you'll find the reason we aren't all skating around on superfast fiber networks is as much due to the fact that people don't know what the internet is good for as it is shareholders directing industry. No one would turn down a lightning fast connection to the modern means of commerce and communication, but few realize that it's already possible if only you'd ask. Time Warner has been sparking some outrage recently by saying they don't offer gigabit connections because no one wants it, but the obvious flaw in that logic is few people are even aware of what gigabit service is, let alone what potential it offers. Saying we don't want something we aren't aware of doesn't cut it-- and we know their take on speed has a lot to do with what's most profitable. But they've got a point in a way: we're sitting on the verge of actualizing the power inherent in a completely connected world, and one of the major hold ups is just knowing it's even possible. It's like an affordable alternative to fossil fuels that creates jobs to boot, but the catch is nobody's heard of it. Maybe the subject is a little larger than that, but those I've talked to who are working on bringing connectivity to a region (or the whole country) are quick to point out that profit vs. public good is at the heart of this story.

Anyone in the position of working for the public's interest on the issue of internet connectivity has the potentially difficult task of attempting to forecast what is in the public's best interest. Fortunately, it isn't all that hard in this case to see the writing on the wall: affordable high speed access needs to be available to anyone who wants it for the good of the individual and society as a whole. Making it possible for anyone to start a small business for a global audience is important to personal, regional, and national financial well being. There is hardly a business left without a web presence. Eldercare is being revolutionized as Skype is being leveraged to keep people in their homes and off publicly funded retirement homes. The list goes on, and just building the network would be a great boon for jobs, so the whole thing seems like a big no brainer. Still, it isn't happening and we can place a lot of the blame on ourselves.

I remember when my family first bought cell phones-- it took a while to do so because "we've been getting along just fine without them this long" and "I don't want people to call me wherever I am" etc. Well, now that cell phone bricks have become smart phones and I can conduct business with clients in Los Angeles while shopping for food in West Virginia, it's a good thing we realized cell phones can be turned off when you don't want to answer them. The feeling, though, that technology is to be avoided unless absolutely necessary is still with us. I talk with people all the time that regard the internet as a luxury time waster for Angry Birds and Youtube. We get fixated on the parts of humanity that are unproductive and ascribe the cause to the technology. Procrastinating, for instance, becomes something Facebook invented, and the solution somehow is to limit or avoid the internet. It's not a new concept-- any new advancement is met with it's share of push back from people use to the status quo. Even so, no one would argue that the internet is just a fad, which makes any delay in building out this network something of a psychological difficulty in facing change and unwanted aspects of humanity. Kicking it down the road doesn't fix it, but bringing everyone up to date definitely will. Talk about procrastination...

Whether everyone is on board with it yet or not, we are moving forward. To do so, agencies like the FCC look at how connected the population is and attempt to regulate in a way that promotes adoption rates. Internet speeds are part of the way we measure access, so the FCC has created a definition for the the word "broadband" that is used to gauge the quality of your experience online. It's an evolving definition that changes every few years as web pages slowly increase in size-- your modern bank's website, for instance, will probably not load on a 56k modem, and the quality of your experience online will be super lame. It's important to always get a broadband connection at minimum if you expect to get anything done, and it's this baseline that is suggested for practical use.

But this is a minimum we're talking about. If we discussed roads in the same way, a similar standard might look like this: because cars carry more these days they need wider roads, so we need at minimum a five foot wide one lane road with as much as a 25 mile per hour speed limit. That's the minimum, they say. That's the very bottom of what's acceptable. Why not any more? Well it's too easy for us to remember the old dirt road with pot holes we had ten years ago, so in many senses this sounds like an incredible step up. Maybe it feels like we're living in the future, but truthfully we're all just happily retiring the horse and buggy to the barn so we can drive Modle T cars on one lane highways. The Model T will go 1000 miles per hour (and safety isn't an issue in this metaphor), but the posted limit is 25, so most people are pretty content with the increases we've experienced lately.

Only because we are living over a hundred years since the first Model T was built is it easy to see why limits like these don't make sense. We know that major industry is based around transportation, and without good strong freeways and roads where would we be? The internet is no different, and no one would argue that a hundred years from now the web won't still be one of the most (if not the most) important development in human history. So, why aren't we building the internet highways we know we're going to need? Why do so many struggle to get access, and those that can get online have few choices? That's where the business end of the equation makes it's contribution the puzzle.

There's a precedent for wired communication technology in the telephone, so we're not covering new ground in figuring out how to handle the infrastructure and business behind the net. Most are familiar with the monopolistic growth of Bell and how it was ultimately divided and regulated, but this wasn't a success in the way we casually imagine it. Business overstepped and the people reigned it in, we say, but an industry like telecommunications with large inherent infrastructure costs still naturally moves towards monopolization in spite of limits. The legal precedent set by the breakup is a wall that only artificially stunts the growth of companies like Comcast and Timer Warner. These once small cable companies have already grown so big that whenever they go to make a major business deal the government has to give permission-- they're pushing against that wall. Business doesn't reach a profit level and choose to stop, and companies don't get together and decide how they can work together to serve the public by dividing the market in the customer's best interest. The wall, therefore is tested by legal teams and lobbyists for pours and cracks and loopholes like water against a levy-- this time around they won't be breaking the law, they'll be helping to write it.

Ask "why" enough and it's easy to observe a business model that flourishes in the face of an undereducated public. Most of us haven't yet become aware of how cut off or limited we are in access. Meanwhile, big business seeks to increase profits every year a little more than the last. Together these pieces inform our current state of connectivity where outdated copper wires clog with traffic and development is stifled by enormous consolidated businesses. The future when people are able to buy a reasonably priced "car" and go anywhere they like for business or pleasure is pushed off even farther. It isn't a question of "if" but "when", and without a significant change in awareness we'll get there only after every penny of the current infrastructure has been extracted and business requires the necessary upgrades in order to grow. It seems a little villainous, but we're only witnessing the natural order of development in business, and acclimation to change in people. The hope, however, is that through education we can take control of the development of the web, and end up with an internet that benefits everyone in a positive way.