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Friday, April 26, 2013 12:58 am

Superfast road to the future

James Krohe Jr.

In “Unplugged” (March 28, 2013) I wondered aloud about why Illinois’ internet service is so backward. Certainly one of the factors is the near-monopoly of such service enjoyed by the big telecommunications firms. It’s an interesting topic about which more might be said.

Is the solution more competition to bring down prices and/or raise quality? Not really. City-wide fiber optics systems cost a lot to build. If one company does it, they have a plausible expectation of high reward; if a second builds one in the same market, both companies will have the same high costs but both also will have to accept lower rewards. In industries that tend naturally toward single provider (electricity generation is another) we used to accept monopolies but imposed government-mandated system improvements as a condition of guaranteed price in unregulated environment. Sadly, we don’t regulate monopolies anymore.

 That leaves new municipal fiber optic networks intended to supplant private ones that under-deliver. But why should the public pay to build its own internet access system? Is access to the web really as fundamental a good as access to electricity or clean water? Is any essential public purpose served by making it possible for more grandparents to ooh and aah over photos and videos of their grandkids being adorable in HD? Backers of high-speed broadband enthuse that people will be able to download a high-definition movie in two minutes or play graphics-intensive video games on remote consoles. To which I say, So what? Big deal.

The advocacy group Broadband Illinois says that job creation, educational opportunities for low-income citizens and improved public safety are among the miracles to be wrought by high-speed internet. I’m not so sure. As for job-creation, I suspect that high internet usage is as much an artifact of prosperity as its cause, and if you make it easier for more households shop and entertain themselves by wire, you only further erode the local retail tax base by staving local bricks-and-mortar stores of trade. As for education, quality connections to the internet do indeed open up the possibilities of massive open online courses or MOOC. But while that makes education possible where it wasn’t in places like Vietnam, in places like Virden it merely makes it more convenient. It might make more sense to spend public money to get Illinois’ rurals to move to cities rather than try to bring the city, in effect, to them via the internet.

All that said, I suspect that new generation of internet service will transform lives, but not because individual Illinoisans will thus be connected to the internet. Rather their lives will be transformed because the internet will be connected to them. Past a certain point, the difference higher speeds make is not quantitative but qualitative. In other words, not only will superfast internet permit you to do what you are doing now faster, it will enable you to do new kinds of stuff. Like what, you ask? I don’t know. Most haven’t been invented yet. Wireless networks will allow driverless cars to communicate with each other. Traffic lights will soon be able to respond in real time to changing traffic patterns. Wearable sensors will allow hospitals to monitor patients’ hearts from home, even detect diseases before they become apparent to the patient. A patient in a rural clinic will be able to have a diagnosis done by specialists in a distant hospital. Who knows? We’ll find out soon enough.

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