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Why Is American Internet So Slow?

Antiquated phone networks and corporate monopolies do not produce fast Internet.
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If you’re in America and getting a download speed of more than 50 Megabits per second (Mbps), you’re in great shape. If you’re getting less — which, odds are better than not that you are, seeing as the country’s median speed is certainly way less — you have a below-average connection. Sorry.

Don’t feel bad, it’s not your fault. Despite Internet speed in the United States tripling over the last three years, the country still ranks outside of the top 10 in peak and average download speeds. The U.S. has an average of 15.3 Mbps, while South Korea has 29 Mbps, the fastest in the world. How is it that the world’s largest economy has such a low ranking? To find out, you have to travel back to when the first telephonic networks were constructed.

America has two historic networks in place. The first is full of the copper wires that made up the original telephone network. Slowly, these began to be replaced by coaxial cable, a copper core with insulation around it, to provide better and quicker signal transmission. These two systems are how most of our Internet is still connected, and, in today’s age, they’re both ancient technology.

In 2010, President Barack Obama’s administration began its National Broadband Plan which, among other things, sought to fix this problem. The plan involved a deployment of more than 100,000 miles of Internet infrastructure, and has been a huge reason why speeds in the U.S. have recently tripled. But there’s still a log-jam in place, because the government can only do so much.

“If you had to be responsible for building all of the interstates in the nation, or all the residential streets in the nation, you’d be spending a lot less building the interstates,” says Christopher Mitchell, the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “Even though they’re big and wide and long, there are so many residential streets.”

The lines constructed on the federal dime have been a boost, but the neighborhood roads still need lots of work. These are what’s known throughout the broadband world as “Last Mile,” and it’s where the greatest slowdown occurs.

AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and Time Warner have a “natural monopoly” since they’ve simply been at it the longest. While the Telecommunications Act of 1996 attempted to incentivize competition to upset these established businesses, it didn’t take into account the near impossibility of doing so. As Howard Zinn wrote in A People’s History of the United States, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 simply “enabled the handful of corporations dominating the airwaves to expand their power further.”

“Building networks to compete with incumbents is very expensive and difficult,” Mitchell says. Because of this, Big Telecom doesn’t have to update their networks. Their job, after all, isn’t to provide fast Internet speeds, but to maximize profits for their shareholders. “What they’ve invested in is improving the last generation of technologies rather than putting in the next generation,” he says. “I would argue it’s not enough.”

Despite Internet speed in the U.S. tripling over the last three years, the country still ranks outside of the top 10 in peak and average download speeds.

Where they have shown the willingness to lay down fiber lines is, not surprisingly, where they’ve seen competition. Comcast has fiber lines in Nashville, Tennessee. AT&T has fiber lines in Austin, Texas. One shared element of those two cities is that Google Fiber has entered those markets as a competitor offering reasonably priced high-speed connections, as high as 1,000 Mbps.

Google’s plan has not been without its hiccups. Google Fiber laid down lines where it did was because communities partially subsidized their low-income neighbors’ ability to pay. “[At first], there was not enough people signing up to make sure the roll-outs would happen in the poor neighborhoods,” says Angela Siefer, director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. “Google Fiber could have said, eh, there’s not much profit in poor people. But everyone [in the neighboring communities] helped.”

Unfortunately, the future of Google Fiber is murky. Last month, The Information reported that Google Fiber plans to cut its staff in half while halting plans for future fiber roll-outs. Without Google, who’s going to force Big Telecom to upgrade? The answer is likely not the name of a single tech company, but rather the names of hundreds of towns and cities.

“The cities that are doing it right are the cities that have done something,” Mitchell says. “The only way to solve this problem is by empowering communities and making it something they choose to do.”

This means somehow delivering the message to communities and towns across the country that it’s in their own best interest to work toward building their own Internet Service Provider. While a seemingly insurmountable task, it’s been done. Chattanooga has somewhat famously installed its own. Santa Monica also has its own fiber network. The reason these communities have been successful is because they don’t look at these networks as a luxury, but as a mode of self sustainability. “There will be communities that decide not to do anything,” Mitchell says. “I suspect their businesses and residents will leave over time.”

The 19th century’s ghost towns exist because the gold ran out. The 21st century’s ghost towns might materialize because the Internet never showed up.