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U.S. Internet needs upgrade

By Derek Lazzaro

Oct. 25, 2004 9:00 p.m.

America was the birthplace of the Internet, but it has fallen
behind when it comes to getting its citizens hooked up. More
competition, and possibly Federal Communications Commission
intervention, is needed to bring the United States into the 21st
century.

Anyone who has ever signed up for broadband Internet knows the
options are fairly limited. Here in Westwood there are only two
major broadband providers ““ Verizon DSL and Adelphia High
Speed Internet.

The situation is fairly similar across the United States. In
many rural areas, there may be only one provider of broadband
““ and in some cases, none at all. Most services are limited
to a small range of speed options, between 1 and 10 Mbps.

But when it comes to choices and speed, these offerings compare
poorly to a number of other developed countries. For one thing, 1
Mbps (and even 10 Mbps) speeds are not enough for many
situations.

Take the average apartment of four roommates ““ someone is
downloading a game demo, another is browsing the Web and a third
person is playing a game. The result will often be a fairly fast
download, but slow loading times for the Web browser and lag for
the gamer.

Moreover, the download speed is only half the equation ““
Verizon and Adelphia upload speeds are capped between 128 kbps and
512 kbps, depending on the specific package.

A couple online games or a big e-mail can easily max out such a
small pipe. And upload speed can also affect download speeds.

By contrast, over 43 percent of households in Japan have access
to 100 Mbps fiber optic lines. That’s more than 25 times
faster than anything we can get in Westwood.

And it’s dirt-cheap in Japan ““ average costs per 1
Mbps were about $1.57 in May 2003. Compare that to about $29.43
here for the same 1 Mbps.

In the United States, the FCC just changed how it regulates
fiber optics, and telecommunications companies no longer have the
excuse that regulation is slowing the spread of fiber optic
cabling, a super-fast form of Internet service.

Verizon announced on Oct. 21 that it would expand its new fiber
optic trials to nine states, reaching roughly 1 million customers,
or 0.3 percent of the U.S. population, this year. SBC, which
generally does not overlap with Verizon areas, has also promised
its competing Project Lightspeed will bring fiber to 18 million
customers within the next three years.

No one knows when these services will be widely available, but
it will probably be some years, and it will spread like a
patchwork.

As fiber slowly spreads, wireless Internet may become its main
competitor. There are a couple of long-range wireless protocols
being developed, including some that could potentially blanket
entire cities. Officials in a small Massachusetts city called
Newton announced Sunday they want to cover the entire town with
wireless transmitters and charge residents about $10 a month to
connect.

Similarly, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom promised on Oct. 21:
“We will not stop until every San Franciscan has access to
free wireless Internet service.” That sounds great, but what
exactly is “free wireless Internet service”? I know San
Francisco is a utopia rivaled only by heaven itself, but nothing is
truly free on earth.

Wireless Internet for all sounds great, but these officials may
be jumping the gun. Again, it will be costly. There are also
potential legal questions ““ does the city want all the
liability issues associated with being an Internet service
provider? As someone who’s set up a fair share of wireless
networks, I can safely say they do not often work as
advertised.

Back in Japan, researchers just tested a prototype cell phone
which can download at over 130 Mbps. I wonder how long before that
shows up here …

Lazzaro is a fourth-year political science and psychology
student and editorial development director for the Daily Bruin.
E-mail him at [email protected]

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