Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Broadband at the Beach

A colleague of mine and I were discussing our summer vacations recently. He had visited the northernmost section of Outer Banks of North Carolina with his entire family (children, their spouses, and grandchildren) and the family of a friend. That part of the coastline is not yet overbuilt with condominiums, and they were able to stay in a beach house, all of them in one place. It’s the kind of summer vacation that I grew up with, back when parts of Myrtle Beach still were dotted with little cottages.

I asked how they liked spending time together in such a remote area. He said that it had been a wonderful experience, and a great way to bring the family closer together. The only complaint he had was that the broadband connection was inadequate.

As he put it, “If the kids were watching a Netflix movie in one room, you really couldn’t do much else over the connection.”

At the risk of sounding like Dana Carvey’s SNL old man (“we had two cups and a string, you couldn’t hear anything, and we liked it!”), this is a truly amazing statement. There was barely enough bandwidth available to stream a HD-quality movie in real time to a remote location on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We have come a long way from the days of dial-up when no one would have even considered taking a modem on vacation, much less bringing along a broadband-connected device just for the kids’ entertainment.
And what’s depressing about his statement is that it is justified, as anyone who spends time comparing US broadband rates to worldwide rates can attest.

I grew up spending at least two weeks, and often much more, out of every year on the North and South Carolina coasts. My mother’s family is deeply intertwined into the North Carolina coast, so we visited them often. For our summer vacations, however, we went a bit further south to North Myrtle Beach for a two-week vacation. We stayed in a house right on the beach that had no washing machine, no dishwasher, air conditioning only in the bedrooms, and a tiny television with no cable connection. One year we brought the Atari 2600 with us and played it so much that I saw marching alien invaders when I closed my eyes at night, but generally there were no electronic distractions. I don’t know for sure that we even had a telephone, although we probably did.

As kids, we loved it. We would be on the beach soon after sunrise (sometimes before sunrise if we wanted to fish), come in off the beach at lunchtime and nap, read, or play board games during the hottest part of the day, then spend the rest of the day back out on the beach. I imagine it was less fun for my mother, who had to cook, clean, bring in water that didn’t taste like old oyster shells, go to the Laundromat to clean clothes, and wash dished by hand (with help from the kids, as we got a little older). In any case, we certainly didn’t think we were missing anything.
Today, when I take my kids to the beach we stay in a condominium with cable television in every bedroom and all of the amenities of home. And yes, I do take my laptop and connect it to the internet. How else to keep up with what’s going on at home, find a restaurant for dinner, or check the weather? But this is in a large condominium complex, where one might expect amenities like broadband. What’s amazing is that we now expect them in the little cottages, too.

As I said, my colleague’s frustration is probably justified. A live, on-demand, HD-quality movie takes between 5Mbps and 15Mbps, depending on a lot of technical issues. Netflix can probably work on slower connections with buffering and compression. In much of the industrialized world, those speeds are laughably slow. When I stay in hotels in Japan, my connection is 100Mbps. In Scandinavia, 100Mbps is table stakes. There is a move in Australia to build a network to 99% or residents that is capable of 1000Mbps.
There was an effort at the start of the Obama administration to bring more broadband to more of America. It has largely been a bust, except in specific small communities. The legislation effectively barred the larger carriers from participating, local legislation in some states kept the cities and counties from participating, and the complex rules meant that consultants and lawyers reaped the most benefits. It was a wasted opportunity.
So, why should we care? About 5 years ago, I participated in a Georgia-based group that was trying to promote broadband access in rural areas. The group consisted primarily of technologists from local telecommunications companies, and the general consensus was that we needed to get more connections into those obviously underserved communities. Finally, a gentleman with the state government stood up to address the group. He explained that his job for the last year had been to go into those communities and find out their telecommunications needs. What he found was that the majority of people did not believe that they needed internet connections and, in fact, most of them did not own computers and could not use broadband connections if they were offered. He explained that as long as such a situation existed in the rural areas, politicians would not understand the need for more infrastructure in those areas.

We were fighting about the need for 1000Mbps, when the real fight was over whether anything needed to be there at all. And that’s the problem that will continue to hurt US productivity and competence.

So long as the US continues on its current path of broadband deployment, so long as people continue to see broadband as an unnecessary expense, so long as customers accept low speed broadband without complaint, so long as government does not consider broadband as important as roads to the US infrastructure, things will continue to move forward at a glacial pace. Yes, there are other pressing issues that are higher priority, but if the US has a comprehensive plan for other vital infrastructure, we should have a comprehensive plan for broadband.

Otherwise, how are we going to get out streaming HD videos at our remote beach cottages?

No comments: