How high quality is the type of video that YouTube recently announced support for? So high, you need a 25-foot screen to appreciate it. It’s the latest reminder that as technology companies invent cooler and cooler applications, they won’t just eat up bandwidth—they’ll devour it. Can America’s broadband network, already under strain, handle what’s coming next?
Measuring Internet speed can be tricky, but few dispute that America’s network has fallen behind South Korea, Sweden, and other global leaders. A growing group of policymakers agrees that America needs to make its broadband faster, while also extending service to the one in three Americans who don’t use it. The current average broadband download speed in America is about 10 megabits per second, according to speedtest.net, a site that allows you to test the speed of your current connection. Those with dial-up obviously have much slower average speeds. Determining how to speed up Net access for everyone is a question that Congress, broadband companies, and interest groups are debating with greater urgency than usual, thanks in part to a federal appeals court decision in April that raised legal questions about how the government subsidizes and regulates broadband. For now, there’s no telling how (or when) the fight will lead to something substantial.
So what’s the holdup? Well, even a few minor changes to telecommunications policy must navigate a tangle of social, political, and geographical issues. The fight for better broadband is important not just so Americans can watch high-def videos of cute cats. Faster broadband can also handle fine-resolution medical imaging and dedicated channels for police and emergency responders. To get the U.S. there, the FCC is moving ahead with its National Broadband Plan, which sets a series of goals for increased connectivity, including 100-megabit-per-second download speed for 100 million American households by 2020. That sounds impressive, until you consider that this will still leave an estimated 64 million Americans with something slower, which is why some experts have argued that the goals are not ambitious enough. Then there’s the terrain. In a country that includes deserts, mountains, and everything in between, building out miles upon miles of broadband can prove easier said than done. As a result, the speed of your future Internet connection—at least in the United States—may well depend on particulars like where you live. Looking ahead to 2020, NEWSWEEK took a peek at predicted Internet speeds in a few representative locales.
Location: Washington, D.C.
Broadband Speed in 2020: As fast as 200 megabits per second; even speedier service for schools, libraries, and hospitals.
Cities like Washington will likely retain the fastest broadband speeds on average chiefly because companies like Verizon and Comcast are more inclined to invest in densely populated areas. That incentive grows even further in areas where the giants overlap and compete directly. Then market forces, rather than the government, will nudge the broadband providers to race for faster connections. Yet Richard Bennett, senior research fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank, notes Verizon’s recent decision to halt the expansion of its FIOS fiber-optic broadband service as evidence that many consumers don’t yet have an appetite for super-fast broadband. He says speed technology is likely to advance fast enough to double its capacity every two years (or even every eight months in the case of optical fibers). But until developers create the products (like YouTube) that make consumers demand more bandwidth, it’s hard to imagine Internet users paying for speed they don’t really need.
Location: Rural West Virginia
Broadband Speed in 2020: Four megabits per second download speed in homes (quick enough to stream a standard-definition video) and faster service for schools, libraries, and hospitals.
A consensus is emerging that high-speed Internet, like a telephone, should be available to every American. But how much are Americans willing to pay to fund those rural lines? Without government subsidies, telephone companies might never have expanded service to far-flung corners of the country, where the cost of building a phone line for a few remote houses would otherwise not be worth the trouble. The same goes for broadband service. West Virginia is just one state where broadband availability could improve drastically over the next 10 years. But extending it to rural parts of the country also requires investment, and broadband customers nationally (who end up paying for the subsidies) may have to bear the cost.
Currently, phone companies nationwide pay into the Universal Service Fund, an FCC-administered pool that gives grants to rural carriers. But extending that system to broadband is complicated. A federal court ruled in April that the FCC had limited authority to regulate Internet communication as a whole, raising doubts about whether the FCC can use the Universal Service Fund to subsidize broadband at all.
Congress could help by freeing up those funds for broadband use. Debbie Goldman, a research economist at the Communication Workers of America, recommends “narrow, targeted legislation that says the Universal Service Fund can be used for broadband.”
Another issue is the minimum download speed set by the FCC for rural areas for 2020: four megabits per second. Senators from Arkansas and North Dakota have questioned why the minimum is so low. But for companies like Frontier Communications, which bought rural communications lines in 14 states from Verizon earlier this year, there is little incentive to offer something better. With congressional support, the Universal Service Fund could at least cover ultra-fast service to the FCC’s “core institutions” (like a hospital that needs to send a high-resolution CAT Scan) in rural parts of the country. “The question is,” Goldman says, “what is the nation willing to spend?”
Location: Topeka, Kan.
Broadband Speed in 2020: Ubiquitous one gigabit-per-second speed, fast enough to download a feature-length high-definition movie in minutes and about five times faster than what’s envisioned even for major cities like Washington, D.C., in 2020.
Publicity stunt or noble experiment? Later this year, Google will announce the American towns it will turn into high-speed broadband meccas, part of an experiment to understand the possibilities of universally available fast connections. Google will wire the chosen towns with high-speed fiber lines and invite developers to dream up applications to harness them. Dozens of communities have already expressed interest in the pilot program, but Topeka, which renamed itself “Google” for the month of March as a savvy publicity stunt, may have an early edge.
Google’s initiative would offer a speed to everyone—one gigabit per second—that the FCC has otherwise targeted for hospitals, libraries, and other “core institutions.” It’s far beyond what most Internet users would ever need, but Google’s premise is that if it builds such a network, innovators will dream up applications simply not conceivable with today’s pipes. Bennett, of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, says even a 10th of that speed could support a futuristic video-conferencing session in which multiple participants interacted as holograms, their likenesses beamed from video projectors lining the room. “It’d be like having a virtual cocktail party,” he says.
Correction (published Aug. 6, 2010): The original version of this story said that the National Broadband Plan sets a goal of 100 megabits-per-second speed to 100 million Americans. In fact it is to 100 million American households.
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