We are becoming more reliant on the Internet than ever before. The frustration and annoyance that students experienced from iLearn going offline for a mere seven hours is testament enough to that. But it’s not just college students who are trading in the scritch of a pen on paper for the clicking of a keyboard—it’s everyone. Businesses can now conduct entire transactions without ever physically meeting the other person. Researchers are no longer forced to travel to a foreign country to view the Gutenberg printing press—all they have to do is find a computer near an Internet connection and they can access images of the contraption in their office.
This transition from the traditional method of doing things to this new online reality is a major breakthrough in how we interact with one another and how business in the 21st century is conducted. Our exchanges and conversations are more frequent than ever before, easier than ever before and faster than ever before.
But though our Internet speeds have been getting faster for years, further increases have come to a standstill in the United States. Right now, the United States lags behind countries like South Korea and Japan in terms of cost as well as average speed. But we also are slower than nations we should be soaring ahead of, including Bulgaria, Estonia and Moldova.
How did we fall so behind the rest of the world? We introduced the world to the Internet; why are we now at the bottom of the pack when it comes to both speed and cost?
The answer is the lack of competition. Internet service providers have taken steps to protect themselves from outside competitors horning in on their business. Each company expresses tacit consent to allow one corporation to rule one market in exchange for unparallelled control over another. The result is that Time Warner and Comcast, the two largest cable providers in the nation, are each making profit margins of 97% with their current business model.
If these companies are content with providing their current services (and why wouldn’t they be with profit margins like that?) there is no incentive to provide faster connection speeds at lower prices. And short of a government mandate, nothing except that financial incentive will spur the changes that need to be made to upgrade our Internet speeds beyond third-world status.
This isn’t purely a selfish request. Sure, it would be nice to be able to access YouTube videos faster than we do now, or to play Xbox Live without fear of the Internet connection cutting out in the middle of a tense, climactic moment. But there’s a lot more at stake than that.
With the Internet being increasingly prevalent, more and more companies are doing business online. Let’s imagine a South Korean business decides to hold a video conference with a company from the United States. How effective will that meeting be if the visuals are fuzzy, the audio is delayed and garbled, and a break in connection threatens to cut off the entire meeting? Communications delays like these result in production delays, leading to declining innovation and increased costs. The result is American companies producing fewer newer goods at higher prices than their overseas counterparts.
The movie and television industries, too, will be left out in the cold. Increasingly, people watch streams of their favorite television show or movie through sources like Netflix or Hulu. If the United States only has Internet speeds that move at the rate of turtles glued to molasses, however, these companies will not be able to prosper. An industry showing great promise will simply collapse in on itself instead of living up to its potential, especially as higher quality videos begin to be demanded. Not only is that a big blow to countless consumers and businesses, that’s potential tax revenue that the government can’t use.
This is especially pertinent for the entire industry of web development and design. As the amount of data on the Internet steadily increases, more processing power will be required to access that data. Websites will only continue to increase in complexity, and viewers stuck with the screen of eternal loading may decide the wait isn’t worth it. Having a slow Internet in the United States means that other countries will be able to store more information and access it faster than our comparatively third-world Internet speeds would allow us to do. In the race to innovate in new ways, the United States would be left behind.
The federal government’s national security apparatus, too, would benefit from faster, more reliable connections. Cyber attacks are becoming more and more common as the rest of the world catches up to us and even surpasses us technologically. Allowing just one attack to breach our defenses could result in compromising huge amounts of private information or revealing vital military strategies. These government security forces need to have the tools at their disposal to effectively reject incoming attacks, and with slow connection speeds, it will only make it more difficult.
Given all the positives of faster Internet speeds, the federal government needs to do its part to facilitate competition in the wireless market. First, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should flex its muscle and actually prohibit monopolistic practices. Internet service providers need to be accountable, and the FCC must do its job and ensure that there is competition in the marketplace.
Furthermore, building a huge wireless network is time-consuming and cost-intensive. The federal government can help lower these prohibitively high cost barriers to allow other companies access to the market and give competition to the otherwise unchallenged titans. The high price of investing in a national network is one reason smaller companies have found it impossible to challenge the likes of AT&T and Verizon.
We should also take advantage of our huge network of satellites. Accessing the Internet by tying oneself to a cable is inconvenient and reinforces the grip cable companies have on citizens. Further developing the same technology that made 3G and 4G possible and allowing everyone access will go a long way toward breaking the monopoly on Internet speeds.
If you have only one company monopolizing Internet access in your region, then you don’t have the chance to choose the most economical option. In fact, you don’t have any option. This is the very antithesis of what the Internet should be. A huge number of people, organizations and companies rely on Internet providers and their service must be designed with consumers’ best interests in mind, not the monopolies’ bottom line.
The Internet must be made more swift and less costly; otherwise, we risk turning a veritable wealth of potential into a wasteland. It’s time for the federal government to do its job and ensure that the telecommunications corporations stop resting on their laurels, compete with one another and improve the speed of the Internet. The future well-being of the country may very well depend on it.