Thursday, January 9, 2014

Is speed the new digital divide?

I have written a lot about 'connects' and 'connects,' (see blog posts, here, here and here; and this article), but increasingly it is the speed (or lack thereof) of a connection that makes people fighting mad.  In my own case, my neighbourhood has never had great internet speeds.  Five mega-bits per second (5 mbps) is promised and most of us are used to about 3 or less.  But as the speed of our broadband (we're not talking dial-up here) sank and remains below 1 mbps (on average .8 mbps) over the holiday season, people (nice people I might add) are getting pretty fed up with the situation.  In fact, they are ready to take on the telecommunications companies and our national broadband initiative, which is aimed at getting Kiwis onto high-speed ('ultra-fast' in their words) broadband.

It appears we are not alone in our angst about the speed of our connections and the relative advantages of fast Internet.  A New York Times article claims, 'There is ample evidence that faster broadband spurs economic growth. The White House cites a study of 33 of the largest national economies worldwide, which found that from 2008 to 2010, doubling a country’s broadband speed increased gross domestic product by 0.3 percent. In its report, “Four Years of Broadband Growth,” the Obama administration says that since 2002, Internet access has contributed an average of $34 billion a year to the economy, or 0.26 percent of G.D.P. growth.' The NY Times does note that such arguments are not entirely one-sided and there is debate about just how much speed matters.

To see how your country fares on broadband infrastructure, you might check out the World Economic Forum global competitiveness report. The US ranks 35th out of 148 countries (New Zealand is 56th).

Returning to the local 'glass struggle' over fiber-optic cables, there are a few significant differences between being disconnected and being sluggishly connected.  The first is that if you're suffering from too much connectivity, you can exercise choice to moderate your own consumption.  This is not always an easy choice, but it can normally be made and if not, well, at least not making the choice is mostly your own fault (notwithstanding the fact that your employer or customers may make it difficult to disconnect). However, in the case of digit drip syndrome, i.e., connections so slow that they make you less productive and effectively waste your time, you have no choice in the matter, i.e., you have little direct or immediate control over the speed provided you by the infrastructure around you and/or your Internet service provider (ISP).

The second distinction of this sort of connective hassle is that there is often a power imbalance between those who provide Internet services and those who consume it.  And, guess who has most, if not all, the power?  My neighbours feel they are in a 'David and Goliath' situation, wherein the telcos and broadband corporation call the shots and decide who gets fast Internet and who does not. It is the power dynamics that make such situations worse than a simple disconnect.  Slow-speed Internet is a constant, annoying reminder of what you are missing, that is the requisite connectivity to get on with your life!

My first job was in Northern New Mexico, the setting of a popular book, which became a movie (directed by Robert Redford) called 'The Milagro Bean Field War.'  The story portrays a courageous farmer who defies the corporate monopoly on water by watering his bean field.  The plot is driven by the David vs. Goliath theme, but also picks up the very real situation in the West, where those who own the water hold a lot of power.

Professor Susan Crawford, who is also a co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, says in the NY Times article that, 'American cities should take on some of the responsibility for building fiber-optic networks and providing broadband service. It is a necessity similar to electricity, she said, “something that no neighborhood or private company would have an incentive to provide on its own to everyone at reasonable prices.”   

Crawford has has written a book, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, that offers a critique on the information age in the United States. As another NY Times article puts it, 'She is on a permanent campaign, speaking at schools, conferences and companies — like Google — and in front of Congress, asserting that the status quo has been great for providers but an expensive mess for everyone else.'   

Just as we all need water to live, increasingly we all need connectivity to support our lives.  (In 2012, the United Nations declared access to the Internet a basic human need.)  The first thing most of us do when we travel is seek a serviceable and reasonable connection to the Internet.  If we can't get a connection on the road, we can change hotels.

Similarly, in our homes, where so much of day-to-day life takes place, if we feel constrained by the speed of connection available to us, the first thing we naturally want to do is correct the situation. And, once you have moved beyond dial-up, there is really no going back.  But, when you're told to 'wait your turn' and you have no alternative, you feel a little like that farmer who defiantly opened the ditch to water his beans, except since our ditch has only a trickle of data in it, we want a bigger ditch.
There may never be a war fought over the Internet like there have been over water and oil, but who knows?  When people can't get satisfaction on-line, they might take the fight to the streets.

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