The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently announced a plan that aims to increase competition among U.S. telecommunications companies with the intention of driving innovation and increasing access to higher Internet speeds. Next Generation Connectivity (a commissioned study) found that the United States, once a leader in Internet technology, now lags behind many other developed nations. The study’s findings indicate that the reason other countries, including Japan, France, and the United Kingdom, have superior Internet speeds and access in comparison to the United States is due to government commitments to open access policies and regulations that work to lower the barriers for telecommunications companies to compete in an open market.

In America, the telecomm companies regularly argue against open access policies, and, until this study, the government didn’t have a clear enough understanding of the importance of fast Internet access. According to the telecomm giants, including Comcast and Time Warner, they shouldn’t have to allow competitors to pay to use fiber optic lines that the giants have run (this is a common open access policy in European nations). The telecomm companies also argue that they shouldn’t have to run fiber optics to rural areas where there simply aren’t enough customers to make it worth the immense cost of the projects. This current system creates localized monopolies, which reduces the incentive for telecomm providers to provide faster Internet for more people at an economically accessible price. This also means that the United States isn’t creating incentives for telecomm companies to push the technology forward.

So, the FCC has presented the National Broadband Plan, which will help America’s Internet access and speeds catch up with those enjoyed in Europe and Japan. The FCC also wants to increase competition among telecomm providers in order to drive down the cost of Internet access — even in rural areas. The FCC plan is an attempt to catch the United States up to nations such as France, where people enjoy higher speed of Internet access than is available in the States, bundled with air-card wireless for mobile devices, and cable television, and telephone service that allows unlimited free calls to more than 70 nations, all for about $35 USD per month. It makes me realize just how overcharged U.S. residents are for all of our communications technologies, from Internet access to phone service.

While it’s nice that the FCC is suddenly concerned with the plight Americans face over affordable Internet access, the reality is that this is still driven by economics. The FCC rightly argues that the United States simply cannot compete in education and business with countries that offer drastically improved broadband. While our businesses will certainly benefit from better access, it is our education system that stands to gain the most from more affordable, more accessible, faster broadband systems. Educators have been discussing the disparity between students who have Internet at home and those who do not for more than a decade. Compared to Europe and Japan, America is like the students who don’t have access at home, which means America is missing out. If we continue to allow telecomm technology to lag behind, so will our education, and we will find ourselves failing in the global market.

Better broadband also benefits government and safety agencies. The FCC plan highlights the ways in which first responders (firefighters, paramedics, and police) will benefit from high-speed Internet as a means of communicating with each other and the public. That means first responders are more likely to be better prepared for an incident before arriving at the scene. Plus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will be able to tweet faster.

The first goal of the project is: “At least 100 million U.S. homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and actual upload speeds of at least 50 megabits per second.” The Web site features a test that can be run by computer users to measure how fast and strong their Internet connection is; the site also offers an easy way to report Broadband Dead Zones. My Internet connection, via Insight Communications, tested at 10394 KBps download rate and 979 KBps upload rate. These numbers meet the project’s first goal, but aren’t as good as they could be given that I’m in a city, not a small town; plus, I pay more than $35 USD per month for my broadband connection alone.

The more Americans who visit the site and allow their connections to be tested, or who report Broadband Dead Zones, the more capable the FCC will be to complete the mission and get the desired results. However, legislation still has to be passed and implemented, and many telecomm giants are against the plan. The very day the National Broadband Plan was announced, telecomm lobbyists jumped into action in an attempt to have as much control over the Plan process as possible. I think this is a good reason why Americans should take advantage of the tools the FCC has published, including the connection test. Helping the FCC know what is happening with broadband speed and access in every part of the country is the key to seeing the Plan through to completion, and helping to ensure America’s ability to compete in the global market in future decades.

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