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ALTOM: U.S. slow to get on broadband bandwagon

February 27, 2010

Thanks to modern communications technology, the chances that you could be working at home today are pretty good. The chances that you’re actually doing so, however, are small. Despite some changes to corporate culture and the ready availability of the Internet, the total number of telecommuters in the United States is still probably under 20 million, a small fraction of the number who could do so.

Some of it is still corporate reluctance, of course. But some of it is because the United States is not exactly leading the world in broadband availability, price or speed. Broadband is indispensable to most “home workers,” for online meetings and the exchange of big files. Rural areas, which have attracted housing developments in doughnuts around cities and contain some of the most hopeful telecommuters, have been particularly lagging in good broadband. There are some options even in the hinterlands, but they’re not excellent ones and the situation isn’t going to get better for a while.

In this country, going online means you use the existing phone lines for “dial-up,” use those same phone lines for a digital subscriber line (DSL), or a TV cable, a cell phone or a satellite. Much better speed is available by using up-to-date fiber-optic cable, but that’s available only in very select areas and doesn’t much affect telecommuters.

Dial-up is a non-starter. It’s incredibly slow by today’s standards and even e-mail on dial-up can seem as slow as the snail mail it allegedly replaces. The only upside to dial-up is that it’s universally available wherever phone lines go.

Most dial-up systems are theoretically capable of up to 320 kb/s (kilobits per second), but in reality they’re usually much slower. Connections are often fragile as well, so large file transfers may be summarily interrupted. Dial-up is not “broadband,” although in truth there is no industry-wide, single definition of what “broadband” means. The federal government believes it applies only to systems capable of sustained 200 kb/s, but many authorities put the bar much higher.

Today, most of us are online either through the phone company’s DSL or the cable company’s coaxial cable. The theoretical speed of the cable is the highest available to most Americans, on the order of 30 Mb/s, (millions of bits per second) but in practice you rarely get that much because the cable is a party line that has to parcel out its bandwidth to all the customers online at the time. DSL isn’t as fast, and you have to be within a short haul from the phone-switching station, which means most people can’t get it. It moves you up to 6 Mb/s better than dial-up.

There are a couple of more exotic methods available. One is cellular, so you can take your Internet connection wherever there’s a tower. But it’s considerably slower than anything but dial-up, with speeds of only up to 800 Kbp/s. There is also satellite Internet now, for those outside the bounds of cable, that can deliver some 3 Mb/s, faster than cellular, but slower than DSL. Speeds vary a lot with satellite, too, depending on carrier, time of day, weather and how many subscribers are on it at one time.

The basic truth here is that American broadband isn’t universally available, especially in remote areas, and even in town it’s not terribly fast in real-world terms. In fact, according to a study earlier this year by the Communications Workers of America, the United States is among the pokiest countries in average broadband transfer, coming in at a lethargic 5.1 Mb/s, when South Korea gets a blazingly fast average of more than 20 Mb/s and Japan comes in just behind, averaging 15 Mb/s. Average, not maximum. In fact, the United States comes in 29th of all the nations tested, even behind Sweden and the Netherlands.

The problem isn’t in the technology, but in the infrastructure. The country’s old, tired cabling was never designed for such high-transmission speeds. The future belongs to fiber-optic cables, but they’re expensive to install, especially in remote places where the return on investment could take decades. Rewiring the entire United States is orders of magnitude more difficult than rewiring Japan, which is only a bit bigger than Texas. It’s the fiber-optic cabling that has graced the Land of the Rising Sun with far higher speeds, since 90 percent of its population has access to it.

There are plans to upgrade to faster networks in this country, but it will take a lot of time and money. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act contains a national broadband plan and $7.2 billion to upgrade systems and take Internet to the sticks. But it still likely won’t let us catch Japan, South Korea or Germany.

If you want to check your own broadband speed, go to www.speedtest.net and click the “Begin Test” button. If you’re getting anything close to the maximum speeds your service provider advertised, consider yourself lucky. Maybe you can telecommute after all.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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