Friday, January 23, 2009

The Rural Coverage Problem

In Defense of Abandoning the Red States

The NY Times criticizes Obama's plan to increase broadband penetration through public spending, since better broadband is already on the way without government intervention (via tech improvements like DOCSIS 3.0).

Running a new fiber-optic cable to every American home may well increase competition in broadband providers, but it isn’t needed to deliver high-speed Internet service. Current cable modems use just one of the more than 100 channels on a typical cable system and can often offer speeds of 16 megabits per second or more. The next generation of modems, using a technology called Docsis 3, allows several of those video channels to be combined to offer what ultimately can be Internet service as fast as 1 gigabit per second — 10 times faster than is offered in Japan, which generally is regarded as having the fastest broadband infrastructure.
This read like deja vu. Not long ago, Cringely wrote:
Ten years ago, the United States had the fastest and cheapest residential Internet service in the world. Today U.S. residential Internet service, especially broadband, is among the slowest and most expensive. ... [B]andwidth has not been lacking for U.S. cable ISPs, which typically devote to Internet service the bandwidth of one analog channel... By adding a second data channel... cable ISPs have plenty of aggregate bandwidth at their disposal...
DSL Reports criticizes the NY Times editorial. DSL Reports gives a few obviously bad reasons why the NY Times editorial is wrong, and one subtly bad reason.

Bad Reason Number 1) Japanese carriers already have fiber lines as fast as DOCSIS 3.0, so it's not so hot.

Japan is a global leader in fast and cheap internet. If we're talking about developments that make us merely "as good as" Tokyo or even those upstarts in Seoul, consumers won't feel slighted by government.

Bad Reason Number 2) DOCSIS 3.0 will be prohibitively expensive under Comcast.

Competition will pull this price down over time, and the lower tiers will benefit simultaneously. Right now, AT&T will give you 8 Mbps internet where I am for $40 or $50 per month. The 1.5 Mbps offering is $10 cheaper, and the 768 Kbps offering is $10 cheaper than that. When DOCSIS 3.0 rolls out, we'll see the same price tiers, but probably for 50 Mbps, 25 Mbps, and 10 Mbps (albeit AT&T will probably lose out to Time Warner). Most cable internet subscribers will see the changes sooner than later, since the physical upgrade costs are not prohibitive.

Bad Reason Number 3) Comcast will be using this technology to mask aggressive throttling and capping on its subscribers.

Throttling and capping aren't so new. If anything, the caps and throttles will become less of a problem over time.

The most complex complaint with the NY Times editorial deals with broadband penetration of rural areas, which will lag radically behind in this new high speed era.

No surprise here. This "new high speed era" is just like the last high speed era, and the any speed era immediately before that. Rural penetration lags behind with every advance of technology. The reason is simple: Rural amenities are HARD.

Delivering services to 100 people is just easier the closer those people live to one another.

As much as this bodes poorly for a Kansas resident like myself, I'm not so sure urban prioritization is such a bad thing. People in rural areas should lag behind here a bit, because every dollar spent helping one rural citizen get "equal access" to the internet could get 10 people in the city "better access" to the internet.

If you can help far more people far more quickly, or fewer people more slowly, which should you do? The ethics aren't difficult here. Push for bleeding edge technological deployment in the most densely populated areas and letting people in rural areas catch up as they can and we will help more people to a greater degree.

Rural areas are emptying anyway. The cheapest way to get everyone connected might just involve a little relocation assistance.