Monday, May 30, 2011

FCC Reports US Lags Online

For most of the past year the Federal Communications Commission has discussed our country’s lagging online infrastructure. According to a 2009 broadband survey (the most recent data available to the FCC), the United States ranked ninth in broadband access out of the 29 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation on a per capita basis. That same study showed that the US ranks 12th in terms of the pure percentage of households having broadband Internet access. This places us well behind the UK, South Korea, Iceland, and the Netherlands.

When you look closer you find that even those of us with high speed or broadband access have speeds that are very slow when compared to other countries. Olympia, Washington has our nation’s highest average download speeds of about 21 Mbps. I just checked my speed and find that right now my lap top on the kitchen table has about 4.5 Mbps. Paris and Berlin average about 35.8 Mbps. We have a long way to go.

High on the FCC’s priority list is wireless broadband access. Here again we trail other developed countries in wireless broadband adoption, ranking ninth, behind the likes of Ireland, Australia and Sweden. With many of us purchasing smart phones, iPads and other tablet computers, the wireless speed lag may get worse before it gets better.

Hard wired broadband access is admittedly more of a problem in a country the size of the United States. Unlike South Korea which would almost fit into the borders of Indiana, the US must span great distances with copper or fiber networks. A high rise apartment building in Seoul may well have more people than many small towns in the US. Delivering Internet floor by floor is easy compared to running circuits to homes spread out over several square miles.

The wireless challenge is even more difficult. Wireless internet beamed to your smart phone requires the use of radio waves and we are running out of space in the radio spectrum. These hand held devices can’t use just any old radio frequency. They must use frequencies that can penetrate walls of office buildings or be received in a moving car or train. Oh yes, we consumers don’t like to have those pesky little antennas protruding from our svelte iPhone. Can you hear me now?

The FCC is looking for frequencies that can be repurposed. One of the targets may be broadcast TV stations. The frequencies used by digital TV transmission use, for the most part, the UHF band. Discussion is taking place that may again change the over-the-air TV broadcast system in the US. This is only one option; there are a few others that might free up some spectrum space but as Scotty often responded to Captain Kirk, “I cannot change the laws of physics!”



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