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The Bandwidth Crunch

A laptop and iPhone at a coffee shop in Columbia, Mo., in a 2009 photo. (AP)

Fire up your Internet connection or your iPhone in this country, and you are immediately in the middle of a battle over bandwidth.

The United States is trailing many competitors in the speed and ease of connection to the Web. France leaves us in the dust. South Korea leaves us deep in the dust.

And it’s not just about how easily the kids can play online games. The Internet is the base terrain of the 21st-century economy. If you’re fast, you’re in front. If you’re slow, you’re behind.

Now the U.S. is looking at a plan to catch up.

This hour, On Point: American choke point — Internet bandwidth.


Joining us from Washington is Cecilia Kang, technology policy reporter for The Washington Post and author of its blog Post Tech.

From Steamboat Springs, Colo., we’re joined by Tim Wu, professor of law at Columbia University. His piece “Bandwith is the New Black Gold,” appears in the March 11 edition of Time magazine. He’s a regular contributor to Slate, and is the coauthor, along with Jack Goldsmith, of “Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World.”

And from Washington we’re joined by Robert Atkinson, founder and president of Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington-based Internet policy lobbying organization. He is former vice president of the the Progressive Policy Institute and the author of “The Past and Future of America’s Economy: Long Waves of Innovation that Power Cycles of Growth.”

Later this hour, we look at the move by cash-strapped states to tax online purchases.  An increasing number of states are trying to collect money any way they can, including on sales taxes from online purchases. New York is doing it now. Many other states are trying to follow in its footsteps.

Joining us from San Francisco is Geoffrey Fowler. He covers technology and e-commerce for The Wall Street Journal.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • James

    When are we going to be able to have smooth, live video person to person communication? Communications like Skype are grainy and jumpy. I want smooth HD live video conference.

  • http://www.simplyphysics.com Moriel NessAiver, Ph.D.

    I work out of my basement providing quality control testing of MRI scanners. I have already received 1000 medical images to analyze this morning. I have a 3Mbit/sec connection (in Baltimore) which makes it possible but I REALLY want faster. My sons in College Park Maryland, (DC Suburb) have Fiber Optics and have better than 20 MBit/sec. I am VERY JEALOUS. I keep asking Verizon when I can get fiberoptic and they just can’t tell me.

  • Sue Rabut

    A big problem which hasn’t been addressed is that in many rural parts of the US, for instance, some farming areas of central NY state, the local residents DO NOT WANT more internet connections, cell phone towers or ANY technology because of real or perceived environmental threats. How do tech companies plan to break through these local blocks?

  • Tom from Boston

    The monthly cost of Internet access is already too high. Time Warner Cable just jacked up my rates with no warning or explanation of the increase. I now pay $50 per month for basic broadband access. Absurd.

  • Ken Klein

    Hi, I’m also a small business (1 person.. me) in rural america. My only choice is to get a T1, which costs me $650.00 a month and theirs only one company who offers it, Verizon.

  • Ruth Baker

    Heh, heh, That CSA who just called in to say he can’t access customers and information due to Verizon, et al, should sue them for loss of profit! After all, Monsanto and others do.

  • Robin Couture

    I live in a very rural community, where broadband from phone & cable is not available but I got a satellite internet system from Wild Blue (thru Dish network) which allows me to work from home. I can easily connect to my office server (which is 100 miles away), so would that not be a workable solution for some of these people?

  • John

    Why should urban residents have to subsidize rural broadband?

  • Peter

    Whatever happened to the technology that was supposed to carry broadband over the electrical grid?

  • Daniel McIntosh

    Why is no consideration being placed on Broadband over Powerline technologies (BPL)? Because the existing electrical lines are already there, it follows that there is no issue of laying fibre or cabling of any kind. The bandwidth rivals fibre optic & many countries like Scotland have already been offering this for years.

  • Michael Todd

    Please comment on Google’s Fiber to Communities http://www.google.com/appserve/fiberrfi/public/overview

  • David

    We’ve just been through a year of individuals from rural states and their representatives in congress complaining rabidly about the intrusion of the Federal Government into health care and financial regulation. It’s amazing how soon the tune changes when the issue is a “big government” program that benefits them exclusively. If rural states want broadband, let those states raise taxes and pay for it themselves.

  • Steve

    Is this another sign of fear of change all accross the USA? Are we no longer the innovators? Just like with the Health Reform why are we so afraid or reluctant to change?

  • ken Klein

    In response to the satellite option, If you live an area that’s sunny most of the time, and you don’t rely upon VPN connections, it’s an option. As a small business, I need to have access even when there’s a storm (which satellite is not good at) and the latency for Satellite is so bad that VPN connections do not work. I need to connect to multiple client sites via VPN, so unfortunately, Satellite is not an option for all.

  • http://www.techfornonprofits.com Lawrence Keyes

    We have a telemedicine application for patients at home, and we’ve been conducting Tai Chi exercise programs for elder patients who have fallen or have a fear of falling. These are conducting using a simple set-top box connected to the patients’ televisions with broadband connections.

    Broadband is the infrastructure of our time. It is the Interstate Highway, Rural Electrification, or like the original deployment of telephone phone lines. In Burlington Vermont we have a municipal system providing fiber connections to home. Similar municipal systems have been defeated by commercial interests in other areas like Philadelphia. This is often the case in rural areas when no alternative broadband connections are available.

  • ErikW65

    I just heard a speaker mention the availability of common use of telecom cables to allow competition. This reminded me of the situation in Burlington, VT where the city started a telecom utility whose fiber-optic cable IS available for competitors to use.

    Unfortunately, the city got into trouble when they borrowed money to build out, and couldn’t pay it back in time. Their state permit required them to install the fiber, but also mandated paying back any city money in only 6 months.

    The right-wingers painted it as an issue of city government malfeasance, and successfully questioned the telecom’s viability. Now Burlington Telecom is in jeopardy. I thought the listeners of this show should know about this situation.



  • http://juno.com phil szenher

    Hi- Several callers today asked why the telephone companies didn’t upgrade of broadband when the vaunted Communications Act was passed during the Clinton years. None of your guest have so far answered that question. Can you please try to find an answer? The big communications compnaies made out like bandidts during that redistribution of wave spectrum. Yet they apparenty ignored the legally binding agreement of the US gov. WHY? Did anybody pay a fine for this except for the indirect fine the people paid? Phil

  • Vincent

    The main problem is lack of regulation and lack of competition. Left unregulated and unchecked the telecoms focus on lucrative markets and neglect the rest. This is therefore not only an urban / suburban divide but also separates the rich from the poor.

    Right here in Jackson Square / Jamaica Plain, high-speed Internet is a monopoly (owned by Comcast). Verizon refuses to revamp it’s copper lines to allow for high-speed, and not in a hurry for laying down fibers.

  • Terry Rabine

    Ironic that Mr. Atkins places responsibility for broadband expansion on federal government subsidies. Is that the same federal government that is being blamed for turning the U.S. into a “socialist state” when it comes to health care subsidies?

  • rob

    broadband-over-powerline can interfere with HAM radio and HAM radio operators are a vocal bunch.

  • Joseph Wetherbee

    Broadband over Power Lines does not work. The frequencies of the RF carriers necessary for sufficient bandwidth will not propagate over power lines. The necessary adaptations to power-line infra-structure are much more expensive than laying fiber to the user.

  • Ken Klein

    In response to the “Why should metro areas subsidize rural areas”.

    To the healthcare example comment: Not all people in rural areas were against healthcare.

    The rural areas provide the metro areas with Food. The same argument would seem insane if the rural areas said why should we grow food for metro areas.

  • Alexandra

    I live in Staunton, VA and pay $20/mo for 1 Mbps Verizon service. This is great. My husband, on the other hand, has a house very near the CITY of Pittsburgh, PA and cannot get affordable internet. Comcast is what it is and Verizon only offers Fios in his neighborhood. They will not give him regular DSL. He does not want to pay Fios prices! We need more competition, even in the city.

  • Gary

    I don’t understand the attitude that urban taxpayers should not subsidize rural areas. I would think as we are all Americans that we should help our fellow Americans.

    Carried to the extreme, just to make the point. Should everybody only pay for the half of the highway just bordering their land? …and if you can’t afford much…then don’t plow it, or pave it…

    It’s called the UNITED States, not I have mine, go get your own States. If rural areas decide to adopt this “I have my stuff, you go get your own” philosophy, get ready to grow your own food, power your own home, etc.

  • Clyde Jenne

    I live in rural Vt and my phone provider Vermont telephone provides DSL service at the same price or less than others in Vt. We have coverage all over my exchange due to inovation on the providers part. I’m sure they are not losing money. Other companys here charge higher rates for higher speed. If one company can have one rate why not all.

  • Joseph Wetherbee

    Wireless Internet also have severe limitations. An internet (TCP/IP) transaction, which happens every time you download a page or stream a video, requires a two-way connection that is unique to that user and transaction. There just isn’t enough spectrum to accomodate that for lots of wireless users. Each user must have two chunks of spectrum during the transaction. Even sharing the spectrum chunk with code-division imposes constraints on through-put (bandwidth that is apparent to the user). Fiber to the user is the only viable solution we have at hand for making this work.

  • http://mfktech.wordpress.com Michael Kilian

    I’ve blogged a bit about this (see http://mfktech.wordpress.com/2010/03/08/what-to-do-with-1-gbps/ and http://mfktech.wordpress.com/2010/01/29/observations-in-asia-on-the-road-to-tv-everywhere/ and http://mfktech.wordpress.com/2010/01/02/the-phone-as-digital-nexus/ and http://mfktech.wordpress.com/2009/12/31/what-google-could-do/).

    At some point the world collapses into an IP network: Music, TV, everything digital. You need more bandwidth but it might be surprising that you don’t need 1 Gbps (except for you guys reading radiological images). Smarter use of bandwidth and hosting content in the cloud (why download a movie…stream it) should be directions in the bandwidth world as well.

    I think ubiquity of quality connections is more interesting. How do I really connect everything, everywhere? Wireless seems to be fundamentally more important than fiber when we consider this issue.

  • http://www.kyledarcy.com Kyle Darcy


    Last week I sent you an advanced reading copy of my debut novel, UNDER CURRENT CONDITIONS. The book is based on actual events, and illustrates the challenges associated with improving one element of the fiber optic infrastructure back in 1999.

    Other aspects of the story were recently featured in NBC’s Dateline program. I understand that ABC intends a related presentation on their 48 Hours series. Neither of these networks have the unique insight that I have.


  • ThresherK

    Broadband-over-powerline can interfere with ham radio and ham radio operators are a vocal bunch.

    BPL can leak out and interfere with emergency communcations (such as police, rescue, or fire).

  • http://www.kyledarcy.com Kyle Darcy


    The last sentence of my earlier posting should have read:

    Neither of these networks has the unique insight that I have.


  • Justice St Rain

    I don’t buy the argument that there isn’t enough profit to lower costs. Companies would rather make a large profit on a few customers than a small profit on a lot of customers. It is less work. If they lowered the cost, more people would sign up.

  • http://www.scribd.com/doc/24352550/Cell-Tower-Rpt Angela Flynn

    When will people in this country get it that unregulated competition leads to higher costs as there is no sharing of technology and infrastructure?

    This article – http://news.cnet.com/8301-1035_3-20000832-94.html?tag=nl.e700 – claims that Clearwire 4G Wimax competes with wired broadband service. The fastest speed for Clearwire is 6 Mbps. The slowest speed for Verizon’s fiber otpics it 15 Mbps. I fail to see how this equals competition. Even cable has a slowest speed of 10 Mbps.

    I have read that Clearwire reports that they need to have a transmitter every 1,500 feet to make their system work.

    There are serious public health implications from radio frequency radiation (RFR) exposure. We need to go with fiber optics rather than radiating ourselves into cancer. Fiber optics has the fastest speed, greatest capacity, lowest energy use and has no RFR. It is a no brainer to use it, which is what other countries are doing.

    Full Signal, a new documentary on wireless transmitters and health is making its way around the world. Check it out and learn what is really going on – http://www.fullsignalmovie.com

    You can read more on wireless and health in my report – CELL TOWERS AND WIRELESS COMMUNICATIONS – LIVING WITH RADIOFREQUENCY RADIATION

  • BrotherO

    This is very interesting. I’ve never heard about the FCC’s plan to spend $20Billion in 10 years to expand internet access across America. I really like to hear about the possible expansion of wireless using broadcast bandwidth. Wow! That sounds great! It would probably resolve some of the issues of the less populated areas in America where Comcast and others wouldn’t find it cost effective to roll out cable or fiber. I do hope they can rework the Universal Service Fund so this is not something that adds to our deficit.

  • Andres

    Sadly, as long as American consumers are willing to pay the exorbitant prices charged by the current providers, those businesses do not have any incentive to provide better or faster service. The reason consumers do not choose the higher speed connections is because of the irrationally higher price; the technology is advanced enough to warrant lower prices but we, as consumers, have not demanded the lower prices from the providers. Additionally, the major cable/phone/internet providers have regional monopolies so there is no true competition to help change their behavior.

  • joshua

    America is really pathetic in a lot of ways–we really are just a ‘developing’ country–sooo backwards, so third-world. Consider our technolgy, or prisons, or crimes against humanity, our poveryt, our drug use, our banana republic government…it makes more sense to live in china

  • joshua

    our health care…

  • Debbie A.

    Regulate, regulate and just keep regulating right? WRONG. Put your thinking caps on for just a minute.

    A business is producing a product to you the consumer. The government steps in and starts making regulations on the business. The more the government requires a business to do, the more the government gets in money, the higher $$$$ your service becomes from the business.

    There isn’t an industry not touched by the federal govt. and all the ridiculous regulations that drive the cost of the service higher and higher.

    When are citizens going to stop bad mouthing business for making money. The make no money, you have no business, you have no services??? Comprende??? Blame govt. for all the regulations in the name of protecting the citizens, while lining their pockets with cash and growth.

  • Kyrie

    Ubiquitous wireless frightens me. There are many many studies showing its interference with living creatures. Remember these microwaves also penetrate our tissues. Fiberoptics and wired options are the way to expand this internet. I am afraid about the potentials to health with wireless and the associated necessary towers. Who would want to live near one?
    This is potentially a huge problem. So much information out there on microwave sickness, and how the bodies electromagnetic fields are being affected, and no one is paying attention.

  • Brett Glass

    Was very disappointed to hear that not a single one of the guests on your show was actually in the business of providing broadband. I was the world’s first wireless ISP, or WISP, and specialize in bringing broadband to unserved and underserved areas. You should have a followup show with folks like me as the guests. We, unlike your guests (two lobbyists and one journalist), have answers.

  • http://www.specialized.net/ Fiber Optics Amanda

    Where can i find a working copy of your show? Specifically this one about broadband providers… please don’t tell me there are no up and running copies on the web.

  • http://www.specialized.net/ Fiber Optics Amanda

    Oops! Nm. Found it

  • Peter Klingman

    I am currently associated with a technological revolution that will occur in bandwidth, and I have a question for all of your audience. My company is Redstone Technologies which has discovered how to ncrease bandwidth size to 250mbs.

    Redstone’s expansion is created by the company’s breakthrough capabilities in the physical layer of communications systems, a development to date unknown and unmatched by all existing technologies. The rapidly deployable physical layer technology in its Redstone PHY EngineTM elevates communications to a new level of video and audio quality, dramatically increases transmission speeds, and does so while reducing the amount of energy consumption required.

    Given that high definition requires a minimum of 200, my question is a cultural one. Once in production what would that speed do to not just solve problems in communication, but how would it change the very nature of how the world communicates? I am planning a book on the subject, and your replies will help me a great deal.

  • http://www.resistorcolorcode.net Resistor Color Code :

    broadband services these days are getting and cheaper and faster too, very soon we would have an affordable Gigabit internet ”

  • http://www.afaxin.com Amberly Septer

    most broadband services are crappy, they can’t maintain high data transfer rates .:-

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