Within the next decade the US should be well on its way to becoming a Gigabit Nation.
Superfast broadband – or Gigabit Internet – holds the promise of delivering richer and more immersive entertainment and gaming, new skills, new jobs, new lifestyles and even greater possibilities for prosperity.
If that sounds like a rosy depiction of the future, it is, but there’s a dark side too, which has the potential to leave communities and groups that are most in need of assistance at a severe disadvantage. You could call it a Gigabit Divide; one which could grow with speed of service.
The benefits of fiber for homes and businesses can be encapsulated in three words – bigger, better, faster: Bigger flows of data, better connectivity and faster uploads and downloads. Yet 30 million-plus Americans currently have no broadband connection of any kind.
Professor Susan Crawford who served as President Barack Obama’s Special Assistant for Science, Technology and Innovation, warned back in 2009 that: “We are creating two Americas where the wealthy have access . . . while others are left on a bike path, unable to join in the social and economic benefits that the Internet brings”.
Wealth inequality in the U.S. is almost as wide now as when the stock market crashed in 1929 so there’s every reason to suppose the roll-out of superfast Internet services will leave millions more people in the technological slow lane.
The rules of engagement are sometimes tricky. Requirements of Gigabit Internet providers can include neighborhood adoption rate minimums and hook-up costs which threaten to shut out lower-income households. One alternative in the near-term is greater investment in ultra-high-speed broadband in public venues such as libraries and community centers.
Very real concerns about inequity aside, Blair Levin, who leads a group of U.S. universities that are seeking to accelerate the deployment of high-speed networks, believes it is still the best path to drive economic growth and to stimulate innovation in areas like healthcare and education.
The issue for communities, he believes, is how to take advantage of digital wealth, how to create what he calls community capital and how to have a stake in the civic society of the future.
Information – cheaply distributed – creates wealth
Speaking at a regional broadband summit in St Louis in September, he said:” The most valuable resource in our economy is information and as the distribution cost of the wealth approaches zero, digital technology has the ability to create a kind of wealth unknown in other times; the best for one becomes available for all.”
While digital wealth was not a panacea, he said, no community would have jobs or opportunity if it didn’t allow its residents full access to digital wealth and for that to be available there had to be a network.
A recent study commissioned by the Fiber to the Home Council examined 55 U.S. communities in nine states and found that the 14 which had widespread Gigabit Internet access had per capita gross domestic product – or total combined economic activity – 1.1 percent higher than the 41 similar locales without it. Those 41 communities lost a total of as much as $3.3 billion in economic activity as a result, the study found.
The relative speed and cost of U.S. networks compared with other parts of the world is a prime concern for many telecoms specialists who fear the U.S. could lose its competitive edge in areas like business, education and innovation.
Population density a key factor
Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea routinely top the table for high-speed services. All three have densely-packed metropolitan areas with high-rise apartments (almost half of the 50 million population of South Korea lives in the Seoul Capital Area) making them attractive propositions for commercial players. Delivering fiber to small, remote communities is much less so.
As of last year, the Fiber to the Home Council reported market penetration of ultra-high-speed Internet in the U.S. was 8.4 percent of residential customers, far behind United Arab Emirates (72 percent), South Korea (70 percent), Japan (50 percent), Taiwan (45 percent) and Hong Kong (44 percent).
Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler recently told Washington D.C.’s 1776 start-up community that where competition could not be expected to exist, the government would have to shoulder the responsibility.
“One thing we already know is the fact that something works in New York City doesn’t mean it works in rural South Dakota. We cannot allow rural America to be behind the broadband curve.
“Our universal service efforts are focused on bringing better broadband to rural America by whomever steps up to the challenge – not the highest speeds all at once, but steadily to prevent the creation of a new digital divide.”
Platform for radical innovation
How that unfolds remains unclear, as Wheeler’s use of “whomever” underlines. But Gigabit-age innovation could spark widely-distributed benefits which partly make up for varying home Internet speeds. Pew Research recently canvassed opinions for killer apps in the Gigabit Age and received more than 1,400 responses. Suggestions ranged from remote surgery and virtual reality environments for living, to disaggregated schooling.
The truth is no one really knows what’s coming but they expect it to be profound. And if they did know, as media specialist George Leddard declared: “I wouldn’t tell you, I’d invest in it”.
Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, summed it up when he told Pew: “I could not have predicted Google, Facebook, Blogger, or certainly Twitter. So there’s no way I can predict what ubiquitous gigabit bandwidth will bring. I only know I want it.”
This story was commissioned by and first appeared on The Open Standard website.