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Thursday, March 28, 2013 11:04 am


Why is Illinois’ Internet service so backward?

We all live in a brave new world, but the future is happening sooner in some places than in others. As you might expect, the planet is home to many nations where connections to the Internet, the highway to that future, are slow or costly compared to the advanced nations, if they are available at all. As you might not expect, one of those nations is the United States.

According to a respected industry “State of the Internet” report, the average connection speed in the U.S. is 3.8 megabits per second. Seventeen nations enjoy faster average speeds, including not only the likes of Denmark, the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea, but also Latvia and Romania. South Korea leads in the speed race, with an average connection speed of 11 megabits per second. Nearly one in ten South Koreans enjoys speeds of greater than 25 MBPS; only one in every hundred Americans gets those speeds.

Not only is broadband slower here than in much of the world, it costs more. That’s partly because our first-generation system is showing its age, but more because the cable and wireless providers such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon enjoy effective monopolies of high-speed service. In countless cities like Springfield, these companies prefer not to invest in new-generation technologies. Instead they milk their existing investment in old ones, using part of the profits to stymie competition that might make such investments necessary.

Price is one of the big factors why only 68 percent of Illinois adults surveyed by the advocacy group Broadband Illinois have broadband at home. (“Broadband” is defined, much too generously, as anything faster than dial-up.) The numbers are higher in cities and lower, often way lower, in the countryside.

Now, I’m as embarrassed by all this as the next guy. When I see a Latvian coming, I cross to the other side of the street. In foreign parts, Internet service is considered a public utility, like telephone or electricity service. When it became clear that those technologies were essential to a modernizing economy in the early 20th century, lawmakers opted to regulate the firms that provided them in return for allowing them monopoly power. Phone companies, for example, were compelled to provide universal access to the service at a reasonable price.

For reasons that owe more to lobbying than logic, our Internet monopolies are not so regulated. The companies that own the cables and the towers decide who gets access, at which price and under which conditions. And while they rake in the bucks in the cities, they largely turn their backs on the countryside.

Some readers will find the situation awfully familiar. A century ago the power companies refused to wire rural areas on grounds that it would cost too much. The countryside stayed dark until the Roosevelt administration provided means by which locally owned electric cooperatives could provide power to rural customers at a reasonable price.

As with power, so too with cable. Shawnee Telephone, a communications co-op in southeastern Illinois, began extending fiber-optic broadband to more than 1,200 rural households in the summer of 2010. Last year, it was announced that 10 rural-electric co-ops and telecommunications companies in Illinois are working together to build a fiber-optic network that would span the state from Quincy to Danville.

In the cities, access is not the problem but price and speed still are. If we can’t regulate Comcast, might our local governments, acting on the public’s behalf, out-compete it by building their own citywide fiber-to-the-home broadband systems? Chattanooga, Tenn., thinks so; that city plans to build the nation’s biggest municipally owned fiber-optic network that offers 1-gig service – 20 times faster than Comcast’s fastest connection speed.

A few years ago Lafayette, La., asked local cable providers there about setting up a high-speed network. They demurred, complaining that such a small market couldn’t make enough money. (Lafayette is larger than Springfield.) Like Springfield, Lafayette provides its own electricity, and the city decided to piggyback a new fiber-optic network on the public power company’s poles and conduits. The two cable giants, which weren’t interested in building their own system in Lafayette, were just as opposed to letting the city build one, and spent millions trying to stop the project.

You’d think that Springfield, home to such big data eaters as state agencies, a university and hospitals, would be promising ground for a public network that would offer lower cost or superior product to that offered by the likes of Comcast. A high-speed fiber-optic network for Springfield would function just as its streets do, being paid for out of general taxes so that commerce of all kinds can move freely to the city’s general benefit. Like Lafayette, Springfield has much of the infrastructure in place, thanks to its investments in City Water, Light and Power. Sadly, that kind of commitment is unthinkable in a low-tax low-service city that can’t even bring itself to offer municipal garbage collection.

Contact James Krohe Jr.


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