Various notables, some with honest-to-goodness factual data at their disposal, say that the United States is falling behind in broadband deployment. Some places have high speed connectivity available at speeds and monthly prices that put US broadband providers to shame. There are a great many contributing factors to the state of broadband deployment in the US as opposed to, say, Japan.
Population density is often cited. As of 1990, Japan had a population density of 327 (in Tokyo it was 13,416 persons per square kilometer). As of 1990, the United States had a population density of 27. It’s considered easier to deploy telecommunications systems in high-density areas, as shorter loop-lengths can reach a greater number of potential users. Shorter loop-lengths mean less capital outlay for the transmission lines themselves (less copper or fiber involved), less attenuation on the circuits themselves, and so forth. For wireless technologies it means a single transmission site can reach more subscribers. Density is great, and the US isn’t very densely-packed.
This is a bit of a red herring, as places like New York City have similar densities (20,194 per square kilometer). That is, until politics gets in the way. By this I don’t mean Republican vs. Democrat politics, but company vs. company vs. municipality vs. state vs. feds vs. the consumer.
In the United States we have a phone system that is based off of a bureaucratic private enterprise, which is inherently bad news. A great read on the inherently flawed nature of this system can be found at the Bell System Memorial.
I’m not terribly familiar with the telecom companies of Japan and Hong Kong, but it’s my understanding that they have managed to avoid the deeply-entrenched stasis that has characterized our phone system for decades. For a good look at how Japan’s government bureaucracy is broken, I recommend Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr.
Add into the mix a general tendency of big-money capital expenditures in Japan to have no plausible link to realistic expectations of profitable returns (hence the “bubble economy” and its subsequent burst), and you get an environment in which tremendous amounts of money can be funneled with little regulatory pushback (the bureaucracy sees it as an opportunity to try to push for more subsidies) and mix in a well-educated, high density population of technophiles and you get 50mbps broadband for ¥3,167 per month (roughly $30, reference).
American telcos, on the other hand, have to deal with unreasonable stockholders that expect profits, unreasonable regulators that want them to run copper out into the countryside, unreasonable banks that want returns on their investments, and unreasonable customers demanding access in remote locations.
Cable companies in the US benefit from a far less confrontational relationship with regulators and a physical infrastructure that lends itself pretty well to sharing big fat bandwidth amongst subscribers. After decades of AT&T and a general failure of the baby bells to dig out of leftover public resentment, US consumers have been more than happy to latch onto this method of connecting. A big problem with cable broadband right now is the lack of choices one has in getting it. In Santa Rosa I can only get it through Comcast. If I don’t like the services associated with the bandwidth, I’ll take my money elsewhere. I could switch to SBC/Yahoo!, but that feels like doing business with the phone company (the only entity more reviled than the phone company is the Franchise Tax Board), or maybe a big ISP like Earthlink, or even some local folks like Sonic.net. Note that three of these choices are DSL. That’s three customer service departments, four sets of add-on features to suit my needs, four chances for the telco to get into my pocketbook at bit. If you look at consumer reviews of their broadband services, such as those a DSLReports.com, you’ll see that smaller, local companies are well-loved by their customers, and most of them are providing DSL from their local phone monopoly. The cable companies are shooting themselves in the foot.
With cable and telephone companies at each others’ throats for market share, regulatory bodies are being used as enforcers. Right now people like Brand X are trying to break the stranglehold that cable companies have over provisioning connections on their networks (reference). Phone companies are trying to force out ISPs (reference), and both cable and phone companies are working hard to prevent municipalities from entering the field by providing service in places that neither are willing to.
All of this just amounts to excuses, though. Nobody has called out the National Guard to stop folks from laying fiber, and it doesn’t take an act of congress to bring up an area multiplexer.
With any luck, new technologies like MoCA‘s 100mbps trials or FTTN will go head-to-head on their actual merits, consumers will be able to pick the services they want, and all the companies involved will be able to make a decent profit. Only time (and probably a fair amount of litigation, legislation, and regulation) will tell. I rather doubt that either cable or telephone as a transmission medium will completely die out if the monopolies don’t have to share with other ISPs; people have a tendency to “cross the street” when they run into poor customer service or connectivity problems.
*edit on 2005-04-13: A good read on the subject of America’s inability to roll out good new connectivity to its consumer base can be found at MediaCitizen.