Your Internet's faster than it used to be -- but maybe not fast enough

Fri, 2016-04-01 06:00 -- Doug Peeples


The headline in a Reuters article from March of 2015 proclaims "U.S. says its Internet speeds triple in three-and-a-half years." The FCC reported at the time average download speeds rose to almost 31 megabits per second (Mbps) in late 2014, well over the 10 Mbps available three years earlier.

Reuters noted that demand from consumers for faster connection speeds to download information or watch movies had driven the increase. And streaming video services like Netflix had a lot to do with it.

But to be honest, Internet speeds in the U.S. -- with a few stunning exceptions -- are far from fast compared to services offered in Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan to name a few. According to an Akamai report, the U.S. trails along at 24th. (Akamai provides content delivery services for 15-30% of all web traffic globally and provides quarterly reports on the Internet.)

The Internet's dramatic impact on city economies
But cities are depending on Internet connectivity to enhance their performance and the services they provide, and the new businesses they hope to attract to boost their economies want the latest and fastest services they can get. The importance of reasonably priced, fast Internet service to city economies can be illustrated two ways… by what can happen to a city that doesn't have it and how much it can mean to a city that does.

A story the Smart Cities Council reported on two years ago shared the tale of woe from College Station, Texas. Because the city couldn't provide the level of connectivity at the right price, high-tech companies and the jobs they brought to town left for locations that could. As Councilman James Benham put it at the time: "We have lost countless companies to other towns because we cannot provide the level and cost of connectivity."

McKinsey & Company shared highlights from a report prepared for an international cyber conference that said "The Internet accounted for 21 percent of the GDP growth in mature economies over the past 5 years," and noted how much it had benefitted major companies, national economies, startups and consumers. And that was five years ago.

On the plus side
It’s not that we can't have the fast Internet we need. In the same story describing College Station's problems, Chattanooga, Tennessee's accomplishments also were shared. The city, its progressive electric utility EPB and Council Lead Partner S&C Electric worked together to create a smart grid that was the foundation of its smart city initiative.

And that included high-speed Internet, which Mayor Andy Berke said had been instrumental in attracting new business to the city. In October of last year, EPB announced it was increasing its fiber optic 1 gigabit Internet service to 10 gigabits. Predictably, Berke said it will help the city by increasing wages, diversifying the economy and setting the city up as a center for technological innovation.

Most cities and their utilities may not be ready or able to make the investments in money and time Chattanooga and EPB did. And while there are a few other 'gigabit cities,' the Chattanooga-EPB story is an unusual one.

While your city may not be ready to undertake building your own Internet service, several companies are working on it. Council Lead Partner AT&T announced plans this week to bring 1 gigabit service to 12 million U.S. residences in the next few years. The company also is exploring technologies to provide other customers with faster broadband speeds, according to Light Reading. And AT&T and other telcos and communications companies are looking at G. fast, a technology that can deliver much faster Internet service through copper lines over short distances (for example, apartment buildings) -- and the possibility of copper line and fiber network combinations.

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.