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And the Digital Divide Isn’t Going Away

October 31, 2014

I read with dismay an article by Claire Cain Miller in today’s NYTimes Upshot titled “Why the US Has Fallen Behind in Internet Speed and Affordability”. The article opens by describing the places in the world that have far superior internet services to the United States:

Downloading a high-definition movie takes about seven seconds in Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Zurich, Bucharest and Paris, and people pay as little as $30 a month for that connection. In Los Angeles, New York and Washington, downloading the same movie takes 1.4 minutes for people with the fastest Internet available, and they pay $300 a month for the privilege, according to The Cost of Connectivity, a report published Thursday by the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute.

Her answer to the question of why our country has fallen behind echoed that of Columbia law professor Tim Wu: we lack competition.

The reason the United States lags many countries in both speed and affordability, according to people who study the issue, has nothing to do with technology. Instead, it is an economic policy problem — the lack of competition in the broadband industry.

“It’s just very simple economics,” said Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School who studies antitrust and communications and was an adviser to the Federal Trade Commission. “The average market has one or two serious Internet providers, and they set their prices at monopoly or duopoly pricing.”

There’s one problem with that response. What do Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Zurich, Bucharest and Paris have in common? They are located in countries where the internet was provided by the government as a utility. Competition had nothing to do with the provision of their services. Their governments saw an emerging trend and made a substantial infrastructure investment. So students in Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Hungary and France will have access to high speed internet learning opportunities at home and in school while 25% of our nation has none at all… and we want to expand the use of technology so that we can become competitive with other nations?

Sorry, folks, we might need to raise our taxes and invest in infrastructure to fix this problem that “competition” created because the “winners” in the competition so far are not going to forgo their advantage and the politicians who provide them with money are not going to go without a fight.

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