Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Broadband
A couple of days ago I walked around San Francisco for almost an hour looking for an open access point so that I could send a single email with attachment to another party. I couldn't find one where I was. A friend had suggested carrying a key fob that would show me where there was an open hot spot. One of the biggest problems was that whenever I would find an open access point I couldn't get on the internet, probably due to my lacking proper credentials to log on to a proxy server that would allow me to get out to the internet.
I was moving from Mission and New Montgomery up through Columbus and Stockton. I would stop every few blocks to get out my iBook and check for available networks. There were always at least three, but they were all locked down. Suffice it to say that I wasn't able to send the email until I reached my destination. Why isn't internet access universally available? I have heard the arguments that it will destroy several companies' businesses, but I am not sure I believe that. After all Comcast is a cable TV company and SBC is a telephone company. Between the two of them they probably are responsible for over 60% of the ISP business in the US. For them, TV and telephone are their primary business focuses. Internet is just icing on the cake. In fact I remember reading that cable internet wasn't even profitable for many cable TV companies just a short while back.
So what would happen if internet access were spread out over a very cheap 802.11b citywide network. First off, for heavy users, it wouldn't be acceptable. The speeds would probably hover around 256kbps even if the access point were connected to a T1 because of a combination of range, interference, and traffic. So for email and internet browsing it would be O.K., but for uploading significant amounts of data it would be great.
The cable companies are beginning to offer much greater downstream bandwidth speeds than before. These downstream speeds are similar to the speeds offered by Japanese ISPs. Of course the Japanese ISPs are still offering greater bandwidth than most of the cable internet providers here in the US. The 6 Mbps downstream speeds that I have recently heard offered are closer than the 2 Mbps cap before. Domestically getting the greater bandwidth costs almost four times more in adjusted dollars than it does in Japan.
The main benefits to widespread internet access would be that people who have had limited access to the internet would gain greater access to it and balance the gap between the rich and the poor in schools. After all, it is much easier to do a report when you have high-speed internet access at home than it is when you have to cross sometimes significant distances to reach your public library to do the same research. It would increase the profile of the city in which it was deployed. The city would immediately become a more popular destination for business travelers as well as tourists. The hospitality industry, currently making a small profit from offering high-speed internet connections in their hotel rooms wouldn't be hurt too bad, because most business users would still rather have the greater bandwidth since they are usually in a hurry and money is less of an object.
The benefits to consumers are obvious. The prices would drop for bare bones internet access, and companies would have to offer rich content to add value to their broadband services. They could offer synchronous net connections and large web based file stores, movies streamed over the web at full quality, and sporting Dolby Digital. DRM wouldn't be much more of an issue than it is now with QuickTime or any other streaming technlolgies. With the large web store consumers' automobiles could be connected to the 802.11b network and people could stream their music to the car stereo. Many consumers would pay for that. They could offer social networking services to get to know other people on the network. There are many, many other models for increasing margins and profits on providing internet service. Web advertising would explode with new opportunities to market to previously untapped urban markets in the U.S.
Rich media producers would immediately see a boost as the number of users connecting at higher speeds went up. Ideas that would have been cancelled as too bandwidth intensive could be drawn back up. TV over IP could really become viable, and the overall substance of the internet would increase almost overnight. IP telephony would pick up, video conferencing would pick up. Online retailers would be able to give better and more visual information about their products to would be consumers, and therefore sell more products online, which in turn would increase their margins and decrease their costs.
The negatives are that there may be some very short term instability in the internet access segment, but companies who are forward thinking and progressive will be able to make the transition easily. Right now the internet service provider market, and really the overarching view of the internet is stuck in the nineties. If business really want for the internet to become profitable, and for new services to proliferate, web access needs to be at the least, far less expensive, or at best free.
I fail to see the logic in not deploying citywide broadband net services for free. Unless people are truly classist and some may say racist, although I am not prepared to go that far, we should roll out free broadband in all major cities across the country. We might finally realize that new economy that we have been promised since the eighties.