All broadband is local. If the Internet pipe that reaches your home or small business is too slow (or too expensive), then all the net neutrality regulations in the land won't help citizens avoid the Netflix spinning wheel (or the logy load times of valuable Internet services for education, employment, communications, and banking).
Companies — both technology leaders and marketing leaders — should care about the quality of broadband to homes and small businesses. Why? Because your ability to deliver great digital customer experiences is hampered when broadband speeds are low.
I'm all in favor of a robust national discussion about net neutrality, particularly if the discussion balances market conditions for Internet services against market conditions for broadband providers, a challenge that begins with transparency and competition rather than controls. (See this for some ideas on the importance of transparency, market forces, and local competition.)
And I'm certainly massively in favor of Internet-driven "human rights, innovation, and progress" as Tim Berners-Lee espouses. But I am not convinced that over-regulating our country's Internet pipes will solve our spinning wheel problems. Ask yourself these questions:
- Why did the Internet at home slow to a crawl during the Boston blizzards?
- Why does Google invest some of its massive profits to provide 100 gigabit bandwidth to homes in Kansas City, Austin, and Provo, with 34 more cities coming?
- Why are communities like Cedar Falls, IA, and Mesa, AZ, offerng citizens broadband services themselves?
- Why is Tom Wheeler, chairman of the FCC, redefining the definition of broadband from a paltry 1.5 megabits/second to a reasonable (but still inadequate) 25 megabits/second?
The answer to these questions has nothing to do with net neutrality. It has everything to do with local broadband capacity.
Once the net neutrality is behind us and we're still impatiently watching the Netflix spinning wheel, what's next? What will compel broadband providers to increase investment and compete aggressively to provide high-speed (like 100 megabits/second) affordable broadband to our homes? Two forces will help:
- Local, state, and federal laws encouraging local broadband competition. Under the new broadband definition of 25 megabits/second, many fewer homes than before have two or more high-speed broadband choices — only 1 in 5 neighborhoods have two or more high-speed broadband providers according to FCC data published in The New York Times. By opening doors to broadband competition, local governments will level the playing field for new providers to come into neighborhoods and buildings. Competition will drive up capacity and drive down price.
- Consumers' willingness and ability to pay for broadband service. Someone has to pay for the fiber to the home or street. Some nations, France and S. Korea, for example, subsidize broadband infrastructure through taxes and have much faster broadband than we do. We do not (at least not directly). But along with competition, if consumers see direct benefit between a higher monthly broadband bill and a better Internet experience (Netflix in HD with no spinning wheel, for example), they will pay more. Steadily rising cable TV bills indicate consumers' willingness to spend lavishly on entertainment. Spending more — with broadband choice in place — will encourage broadband providers to invest in that fiber and high-performance Internet connections.
When the dust settles on the national net neutrality debate and we are still watching the spinning wheel, let's be prepared to take the discussion to our local governments and state legislatures to make sure our communities have the best broadband possible. The economic health of our towns and regions will depend on it.
Figure based on FCC data published in The New York Times on February 26, 2015