Living in a fool’s (broadband) paradise

Or how you gonna make ’em love the Broadband Internet if they don’t know what the hell you’re talking about?

Last week we were awash – again – in breaking news, official announcements, and new research concerning the Internet and broadband. ICANN and the US Dept of Commerce loosened the apron-strings that bound them together for 11 years. Rod Beckstrom, ICANN’s new CEO, has transformed the Joint Project Agreement into an Affirmation of Commitments that will finally (he claims) give the rest of the planet a say.

The FCC held an open meeting devoted entirely to its interim report on the National Broadband Strategy. These guys aren’t fooling around. Check out this page – a conversation with Chairman Genachowski, video of the full meeting, slides, background papers, etc. The Chairman called this open meeting “an extraordinary, unprecedented process.”

The fine folks at the Saïd Business School and the Universidad de Oviedo, who brought us the world’s first comprehensive study of broadband quality (underwritten by Cisco), have just released their 2009 report (press release here, pdf of report here). The good news: 62 out of the 66 countries analyzed have improved the quality of consumer broadband services since last year. The bad news: Canada has dropped in the general ranking from 26th place to 30th. More bad news: the BQS study is based on 24 million measures, taken in 66 countries, of actual throughput, and scored using a weighting for downlink, uplink and latency, according to their importance for next-generation services like consumer telepresence. Huh? Bad news?

Don’t know, don’t care

Yep, the bad news is that almost nobody understands what any of this means. Deaf ears all round. I’ve been piecing this together from talking with friends, participating at industry events, reading what others have to say and being in the classroom with representatives of the 20-something digital generation. No offence to my wonderful, long-suffering students. But most are 4th-year Communication Studies majors and barely 1 in 10 has the slightest clue about how their laptops and cellphones work. Most are stunned – at first anyway – by the idea that they should graduate with a basic knowledge of how the Internet functions. In the first week, I started talking about broadband quality and several students raised their hands to ask: what’s broadband? At least they’re asking (there are no dumb questions).

Why is this important? Because the 2009 BQS report proves, once again, that Canada is a broadband banana republic. Guess how many Canadian cities make the top 100 out of the 66 countries measured? Exactly one – Vancouver, at #47. Toronto? Not even at the bottom of the heap with the likes of Athens and Istanbul. And in this game, ignorance is not bliss, no way no how. Because if you have no idea what broadband is, then you’re going to get the broadband you deserve.

I see this concern being picked up by other bloggers. Internet scholar Larry Press, for example, had a post in late August entitled The general public is unaware of Internet policy issues and their impact. He asks rhetorically: “If all of the freeways in the US were two lane streets, would that effect the quality of your life?” How about if the 401 turned magically into a 2-lane road tonight – and stayed that way? A few days earlier, Geoff Daily, policy wonk and fiberoptic activist, wrote a similar post: Most People Don’t Understand Broadband Or Bandwidth. Like my students, the friend in Daily’s post (who has no idea what kind of Internet access he has or how much he’s paying for it) is “completely comfortable using the Internet.” That’s exactly the problem: getting completely comfortable with getting completely screwed.

Your tax dollars at work

Meanwhile, we’ve had news out of Ottawa too. In August, the CRTC released its 2009 Communications Monitoring Report (pdf), nearly 300 pages of exhaustive technical and financial analysis. We get a double whammy – what the Commission apparently thinks is news both truthful and good. On one hand, we’re still getting the old familiar bullshit about how great we are (page v):

For Internet service, Canada compares favourably for low-use broadband Internet service, and reflects a median price point for medium- and high-use baskets. Canada has the highest proportion of households with broadband connections among the G7 countries.

Zowie! We’ve got penetration! Hey boys, time to move on to a more well-rounded, feminine view of the universe. That would include broadband quality, as well as actual adoption and usage patterns, not to mention getting to work on little things like affordability. If things are so hunky-dory up in Ottawa, how come Ottawa isn’t even in the top 100 cities globally for broadband quality?

A few lines later, we find the feds are bending over backwards to keep the incumbents from breaking into a sweat when the time comes to file data on their broadband businesses:

In 2009, the Commission … collaborated with Industry Canada to minimize the reporting burden on the industry. The Commission worked with Industry Canada to identify the availability of broadband Internet access service. The data, jointly collected, will assist Industry Canada in the administration of the $225 million broadband deployment initiative that was part of the federal government’s economic incentive plan [emphasis added].

Now there’s a great way to build evidence-based policy on the biggest development since the Industrial Revolution. Make sure the five publicly-listed companies that control 3/4 of Canada’s Internet access revenues don’t strain themselves compiling data while the country digs itself out of a recession (2009 Monitoring Report, p.214).

As for that $225 million broadband deployment initiative (Connecting Rural Canadians), Industry Canada has actually sent out another broadcast email in an effort to answer such questions as “What is the definition of broadband connectivity?” A general FAQ is online here – but I feel compelled to share the information contained in the email. And I quote:

Broadband connectivity is defined as access to Internet service that supports data transmission at a minimum download speed of 1.5 Mbps to the household. The program has a minimum target upload speed of 384 kbps. For both upload and download, the program expects a maximum oversubscription ratio of 10:1 on access bandwidth to backhaul bandwidth when the total number of users per node is 100 or less. The acceptable oversubscription ratio would scale linearly up to 50:1 as the number of users on a node approaches 10,000.

Holy cow. This is what the Government of Canada is doing to help us understand the infrastructure that now runs the bleeding edge of the global economy. You might take a charitable view of the social utility of this little paragraph if you happen to understand that network oversubscription is exactly why we have to put up with traffic-shaping and bandwidth scarcity. Just don’t try it out on your grandmother.

And finally, a candidate – from the same email – for my list of all-time, most outrageous pieces of bureaucratic bandwidth bafflegab. How do the Industry Canada folks think their rural 1.5 Mbps will go over with the great unwashed public?

The program considers 1.5 Mbps to be associated with the average expectations of the end-user experience associated with a 1.5 Mbps service [emphasis added].

If you liked 1.5 Mbps in your previous experience with 1.5 Mbps, then you’re gonna love IC’s experience of 1.5 Mbps, depending of course on your personal expectations of 1.5 Mbps. Except of course for those taxpayers who have no freaking idea what a megabit is, or happen to have the misfortune of living in a broadband banana republic. IC, we rest your case.

One thought on “Living in a fool’s (broadband) paradise

  1. Dave, I’ve had some time to contemplate your advocacy of improving broadband quality and there are a few questions I’d like to raise. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sold on improving our broadband quality score, BQS – real-time videoconferencing sounds pretty cool to me. However, from what I infer, improving our broadband infrastructure lies in convincing the government to either invest in fiberoptic infrastructure or imposing stronger regulations on ISPs. With this in mind, it’s easy to understand how a government or regulator could be preoccupied with penetration, i.e. creating equal access to information, which would be prioritized over the ability to enjoy better file-sharing for example. So, my questions:

    – Is there any significant concern about penetration anymore ? Is widespread connectivity a dead issue in North America?
    – What social value lies in improved broadband quality? How would that justify government spending in improving our BQS?
    – And finally, what sorts of measures have been used to justify government spending in this area in other countries, especially those ranking higher in broadband quality?

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