According to Thomas Freedman, we shouldn’t be worried about broadband capabilities in rural America:
Right now, though, notes Levin, America is focused too much on getting “average” bandwidth to the last 5 percent of the country in rural areas, rather than getting “ultra-high-speed” bandwidth to the top 5 percent, in university towns, who will invent the future. By the end of 2012, he adds, South Korea intends to connect every home in the country to the Internet at one gigabit per second. “That would be a tenfold increase from the already blazing national standard, and more than 200 times as fast as the average household setup in the United States,” The Times reported last February.
Therefore, the critical questions for America today have to be how we deploy more ultra-high-speed networks and applications in university towns to invent more high-value-added services and manufactured goods and how we educate more workers to do these jobs — the only way we can maintain a middle class.
Erik Loomis disagrees, arguing:
I know the fact that people live in rural areas and small towns is inconvenient for people obsessed with national planning and technological fetishism, but that’s the reality of the United States. You can’t just marginalize these people and their futures by dooming them to second-rate access to resources. I mean, you can, but then you have to deal with endemic poverty, high rates of drug use, domestic violence, and any number of other social problems.
He is particularly concerned about rural Hispanics.
I am, of course, in the middle of this. I am a broadband using geek living in rural America. So naturally, I am sympathetic to the idea that the “last 5%” should get broadband. I am not presently in the last 5%, but I’m close enough to it that we would have to be careful about where we buy a home. I’ve already let it be known that broadband is not optional. But I am a computer geek. A lot of people out here can live with cut-rate connectivity. There’s nowhere in the country (or the lower 48, anyway) that you can’t get something, even if it’s satellite. Satellite might not be good enough for me, but I am not a typical case. The degree to which the rest of the country should bend over backwards for its most rural brethren is limited.
It leads to projects like this, where millions was spent on areas with 35k homes, of which 30k already had fixed broadband service. Over 90% of the remaining 5k had 3G availability, which isn’t ideal but is still something. I would be surprised if satellite were not an option for the remaining 500 houses. At some point, I think you have to say “good enough” and move on.
On the other hand, Friedman’s suggestion about the top 5% leaves me cold. Namely because we want a degree of universality to our service. Even if some get left behind, web site developers and content deliverers (like Netflix, Hulu, etc.) need to have some idea of the sorts of speeds that people are going to get. If you plug in Silicon Valley, and their speeds are significantly faster than everyone else (who isn’t in the top 5%, that is), they will be developing things for those speeds. This is already a problem, with inadequate buffering on the unjustified beliefs that everyman’s delivery speeds are faster than they are.
In terms of Internet, what I would very much prefer over raising speed caps is raising speed reliability. The other day I was at a coffee shop wherein all of the comments I wanted to leave at blogs had to be emailed to my cell phone, where I could then post it using my phone. The main reason is that they (I believe) have to dedicate so much of their bandwidth to downloading and so little to uploading, that the latter just became impossible. This is at a hot spot. This is where we really need improvement before we’re worried about the top 5% (or, for that matter, the left behind 5%).