I Want My IPTV

Why has the United States become a broadband backwater?


In 1994, as the Internet began to evolve, I wrote an article for a Harvard political-science quarterly claiming that it would someday allow anyone with a fast link to the network to become a broadcaster without applying for a license. Then people could look at and talk to other people and share their pictures, music and even movies with anyone else in the world with a similar fast link. The Harvard editors were skeptical. Still, they allowed my assertions to stand.

As we know, it took another decade or so for broadband services to take root in a wide swath of the planet. As an Internet pioneer, the United States led the way. That is why, to this day, the U.S. Commerce Department retains ultimate supervisory control over the addressing system that enables online connections to move smoothly all over the world.

If today Internet-protocol television (IPTV) is a technological reality, then why aren't millions of Americans watching high-def movies on demand or viewing live concerts and sports events via their home wireless networks with user-controllable multiple camera angles on their screens? Why aren't more blog-minded citizens turning their homes into mini-broadcast studios?

The reason is that U.S. government policies and private corporate decisionmaking have fallen well behind the technological curve. We are paying a stiff social, economic and cultural price for our collective folly.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) reports that the United States has fallen to 16th place among the nations of the world in broadband usage and continues to plummet. In terms of costs to consumers and the quality of services available to them, the wealthiest country on the planet ranks as a stagnant online backwater compared to the likes of South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Sweden and even Slovenia.

In the 1990s, the "Baby Bell" regional telephone companies persuaded Congress to enact sweeping deregulation. In return, they said, they would utilize their newfound freedom (and profits) to roll out exciting new services, including high-speed fiber-optic lines, so-called universal fat pipes, directly into tens of millions of U.S. homes.

In fact, however, capital expenditures fell from 24 percent of the Bells' total expenses in the early 1980s to merely 14 percent of expenses in 2004. Rather than deploying fiber-optic services (FiOS) into homes, they spent the money to fund technologically obsolete digital-subscriber lines (DSL) while trying to fend off the inevitable shift of long-distance services to a cheap (or even free) Internet telephone platform, known as VoIP, or voice over Internet protocol.

Dial-up services through regular telephone lines typically run at speeds of 50 kilobips per second (Kbps). DSL services commonly download data at speeds of 768 Kbps. Cable modems, which are usually faster, can top out at about 5,000 Kpbs. Meanwhile, large swaths of Western Europe and Asia glide along the Net at 30,000 to 100,000 Kbps. This readily enables them to deploy IPTV, VoIP and other nifty services, offered at reasonable connection fees. By contrast, U.S. consumers struggle in the slow lane and pay hefty usage fees for the privilege.

Sen. Max Baucus, (D-Mont.), the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, says, "A second-rate communications infrastructure will slow American innovation, and so will unwise regulations and unnecessary costs. Since innovation is at the heart of America's economic competitiveness, we need to pave the way with sound [new] telecom law."

Turn on your technologically hobbled computers and TV sets to see if the lawmakers are up to this challenge.