Why Is the Internet So Damn Slow?

In Los Angeles, I pay ten times as much for internet that's half as slow as it is in Seoul. That's pretty grim, considering how much time I spend on the web.

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Nov 6 2014, 12:30pm

Photo via Flickr user ​Dan Taylor

​I spend all day on the internet. And I mean that literally: The first thing I do every morning is roll over to check my Twitter feed; I stream music on my drive to work;  I buy movie tickets and make restaurant reservations online. I don't even own a television, because I watch all my TV on my laptop.

But in most cities in America—including Los Angeles, where I live—we're getting screwed over by our internet. Last week the ​Cost o​f Connectivity, an annual report on the state of internet speeds and cost, reported that just about everyone in America is paying top dollar for really slow broadband.

For example, the internet in Los Angeles is half the speed of the internet in Seoul, and yet we pay ten times as much for it. The only cities in America that can even hold a candle to places like Seoul are Kansas City and Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the internet is fast but still twice as expensive.

So the internet sucks—but why? Broadband , like modern art, is one of those things that I understand on a theoretical level but don't really "get," so I reached out to Chris Mitchell, who heads the nonprofit Community Broadband Networks Initiative, to learn about why my internet is so damn slow.

VICE: Why do internet speeds vary so much between places like Los Angeles and, say, Kansas City?
​Chris Mitchell: Well, it's a good question. I think the main reason is that most communities only have a choice between one or two providers in a residential area for high-speed internet access. The reason for that is that those networks were typically built with monopoly protection. Basically, if you go back 100 years, the federal government said, "Telephones are going to be a monopoly, that way we can make sure that everyone will have access at reasonable prices." There were some cities that did not give a monopoly; they gave what's called a nonexclusive franchise. We're in a situation where we still don't have competition, but we don't have any legal force protecting a given provider from competition. It's just sort of developed that way because of the economics, which is that basically once you already have a network, it's really easy for you to drive out competition. And you do that typically by lowering prices; if there's anyone that's trying to build a network, you lower your prices long enough that they go out of business, and then you raise your prices back up to monopoly levels. 

So it's an issue with economics, not with technology. Is it any different abroad?
In some other countries, you have government working hand-in-hand with businesses in ways that our governments and private companies don't. In some cases, like in Southeast Asia, you even have the government having a stake in the company. In those cases, they are able to justify higher levels of investment and better networks, because they see a public good or a competitive reason to do that. 

Is the difference in speed really all that noticeable?
Oh, yeah. ​Susan Crawford [former special assistant to President Obama for science, technology, and innovation] was ​talking about how when she was in South Korea and talking to people there, they said that coming to the United States was like going back in time for internet access. I've since heard that from someone else as well who came from Southeast Asia. 

Wow. So why can't we compete with their internet?
​A common criticism there is that United States will have trouble competing with Southeast Asia because we're so big and our geography is so immense and we have such low population density, but I would say that even if we were to just compete on the basis of New York and San Francisco, we're getting crushed there, too. So we need to do something different, and clearly relying on AT&T and Comcast to solve this problem is not a winning proposition.

But there are cities, like Seattle, that are trying to create municipal internet networks, right?
Yes. There are about 150 cities in the US that provide citywide service. Now, about half of those run fiber-optic networks to homes. The other ones are cities like Tacoma, south of Seattle, where they built a cable network before fiber to the home was feasible—so this is actually not a very recent phenomena. The cities that built the old coaxial networks, they face a bit of a challenge, because their technology is often the same as the massive companies like Comcast that the government is competing against. But there a number of cities, like Wilson, North Carolina, and Lafayette, Louisiana, where they have invested in the fiber-to-the-home networks, and they're doing very well. I think Seattle and some of the other big cities are trying to figure out what they can do, but it isn't clear if they're going to be doing fiber-to-the-home, or if they're just going to be doing fiber to business district or some areas of time, which is what about 250 other cities have done.

Are there municipal networks elsewhere?
​Most of the municipal networks in the world are either in Sweden or the United States. So in Sweden, in Stockholm, they built fiber-outs everywhere, starting 20 years ago. They just celebrated their 20 year anniversary. And because they had fiber available everywhere that the city maintained and made available at reasonable prices, when 4G LTE networks came out, Stockholm immediately had like four of them. If you wanted to deploy a wireless network and you wanted to do it in a city like London, it was hard to get fiber to all of your antenna locations. But if you wanted to do in Stockholm, it was very easy to get fiber to all of your antenna locations, so that supercharged wireless competition.

That's amazing. Another country that seems to be on their internet game is Estonia. I visited a few years ago and I was floored by how many free WiFi networks there are—they're everywhere. Is that something we'd ever see stateside?
Yes, it's definitely something that we hear from local leaders. It's a goal. A lot of people get really excited about WiFi, and WiFi is a very good technology for some things. But if you want to have it throughout an entire city, it's probably not going to pay for itself. There's an expensive operating cost, and someone has to pay for that. It's probably not going to reach people inside their homes for most people, so it's really something that people are going to be using when they're out and moving around. There's a benefit to that in cities like Boston and New York City, which are trying to figure out what they can do to get more WiFi available throughout the city, but I think that when you look at [the success of] places like Estonia, it's because their governments have made it a priority. 

I live and breathe the internet—there are very few things I do anymore without an internet connection. Do you think it's a civic responsibility to provide quality internet?
I think that the attitude that you're putting forth is one that I've heard from conservatives and liberals alike across the country, and I think elected officials at the local level don't yet realize how many people think like that. The reason that I think that's important is that of the 150 cities that have built their own networks citywide, almost all of them have chosen to do it without using any taxpayer dollars. They usually sell bonds to the private sector, and then the bonds are repaid with the revenue from the network. But if you built the network like infrastructure like we built our streets—let's just say that your property taxes went up $10 or $20 per month, and your cable bill went down $20 per month, but you had a choice in providers, and you had much faster speeds, the question is: How many people would be interested in that approach? And I think right now elected officials are afraid of having that conversation, but I think in coming years, we're going to see more towns using that kind of an approach.​​

Follow Arielle Pardes on ​Twitter.

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