Many years ago the United States made a historical commitment to ensure that all Americans have access to high-quality, reasonably priced communications. At the time the US national phone system was a technological marvel and the envy of the world.
Last year I wrote an article about the ongoing trend to deregulate the fixed-line requirements in many states. Intense industry lobbying has resulted in new legislation removing oversight of telecom in 20 states.
Having access to a telephone line has been considered for years a basic right for all, and regulations in every state made sure that right was exercisable. Now having access to high-quality Internet service is considered to be at the same level -- but the rules are different. While competition in big cities and metropolitan areas is bringing prices down and providing new, faster services to customers, the vast majority of Americans do not have reliable broadband Internet services like cable and fiber.
This is extremely critical for businesses. Today, 10 years since the first commercial fiber rollout, only 36.1 percent of businesses enjoy that technology. While the industry claims that the fiber gap is closing, the rate of rollout and adoption is slowing. Hunter Newby, CEO of Allied Fiber, recently told an audience in Las Vegas: “That means in [the last] eight years, we have increased only 26 percent. At that pace, in 16 years, we will be... on the same level that Singapore, South Korea, and Japan are on today. That is not so good. Not so good.”
And rollout for commercial and consumer fiber is not the only issue. Fiber is the backbone for 4G services, such as LTE, to deliver the promised speeds. Newby estimates that less than 30 percent of the current antennae are connected via high-speed fiber, thus limiting the ability to deliver the promised speeds. If a few hundred LTE connections are being served by an antennae group, and that is connected by cable or microwave, the resulting speeds will not be faster than current 3G or HDSPA.
Meanwhile the US is falling behind in broadband adoption. While broadband access, using DSL, was over 5 percent in 2002, four times the penetration of the UK, now the US penetration is 20 percent lower. And the broadband adoption by consumers has stopped in past three years, actually losing a point in 2012.
Eliminating oversight and allowing more competition could be a good thing, but state legislators and governments need to guarantee availability of quality Internet service to all residents. If the incumbent telecom, the one providing fixed-line access, is not interested in bringing high-speed fiber to certain areas, governments should open the market to others, eliminate some barriers for competition, and also allocate some funds to help with the initial rollout. Without a real plan to make sure this technology is available to everyone, the digital gap will widen as the US falls further and further behind Asia and Europe.
Fifty years ago the basic communication device was a landline phone. Today it's high-speed Internet, and that means a fiber connection. Some telecoms are arguing that minimal wireless connections are enough; but that's not true. State legislators need to talk to real people and businesses using those services and determine the best way to ensure their access to the best technologies.