Traveling with my family recently through Uruguay, a middle-class country of well-tended farms, towns and cities, I found good Internet access in most public squares and plazas, for free. It was a project, I was told, of Uruguay’s President Jose Mujica, the former leftist guerrilla.
Later on the same trip, we had a chance to send our 7-year-old son to a Uruguay school for a day. Thanks to another program, Plan Ceibal, schools enjoy near universal Internet access in classrooms. (The same program provides every child with a low-cost laptop.) Uruguay’s widespread Internet connectivity has led to other advances, such as universal online payroll tax collections.
Shortly thereafter, I visited several cities in South Korea, including Daejeon and Seoul. If Uruguay’s Internet policies were impressive, South Korea’s were nothing short of miraculous. Internet usage has penetrated deep into the nooks and crannies of people’s lives.
In Daejeon, a medium-sized city an hour away from Seoul by high-speed train, I was waiting one afternoon at a bus stop. Nervous about whether I was at the right spot, I checked with a young man next to me. He whipped out his smartphone and confirmed that the spot was correct. The bus I was waiting for would come in two minutes, he said. And indeed, when I looked up a minute later, it was arriving.
Later in Seoul, I was running late for an appointment, having miscalculated how long it would take me to cross the huge city by its excellent subway system. While on the train, I received multiple emails from my hosts with directions and advice; they just assumed I would be able to read them on the subway, which I could. Friends in that city told me of jogging in the streets while listening to Internet radio, with the service switching from one Wi-Fi hotspot to another without a problem.
When I returned to the U.S. from my travels, I was generally greeted with patchy, slow and expensive service everywhere I went, including in my own home in Brooklyn.
As the global Internet completes the switch from a slow-speed, dial-up network to ubiquitous wired and wireless broadband access, a crucial challenge for governments is whether and how to accelerate and deepen this process. There seems little doubt that Internet access has become a new form of essential communication and information, as much as the telephone or electricity was 100 years ago. The degree to which governments should help this process along is a major question.
The United States, which invented and still largely controls important technical aspects of the Internet, finds itself in an ironic and unhappy position. Various statistics and surveys now show that many other countries have surged ahead of us in providing their citizens fast, cheap and widespread Internet access.
South Korea, already a world leader in Internet access, aims to soon provide every citizen with broadband service that can achieve download speeds of one gigabyte per second. The country routinely installs fiber-optic lines, I’m told, making this an easy goal. The result will be a range of enhanced services, such as 3-D television and better video conferencing.
There are a number of ways to get to better Internet access and service in the U.S., but it’s clear that much heavier government involvement is needed. Right now, many regions of the country are served principally by a few large private providers -- Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner, Comcast, Cox and others -- that hold semi-monopolies, which allows them to charge high prices for middling service, often bundled with other services such as telephone and cable television. In contrast, South Korea’s private providers, such as Korea Telecom, provide the service, but government is heavily involved with policies and funding.
We can learn what works from looking at our own history regarding previous technological revolutions. In the case of roads and electricity, government has directly built and owned the medium. Sometimes, private companies have triggered development. But once universal access has been achieved -- as was the case with electricity and telephones -- government has either owned the services or regulated them more assertively.
A growing trend in this country and around the world is municipal ownership of Wi-Fi and broadband service. It makes sense. A city, which usually owns the streets, can set up a network and deliver fast, efficient and pervasive service, just as it does with water and sometimes, electricity. One American city that has taken the step of providing such service directly is Chattanooga, Tenn., where the publicly owned power company, the Electric Power Board (EPB), has begun supplying high-speed service, to great attention.
“We believe that if private providers aren’t providing it, then government should,” says EPB spokeswoman Danna Bailey, whose company won a lawsuit filed by Comcast to stop the venture. “We know that Internet is becoming critical infrastructure, much like electric power in the turn of the last century.”
As countries like South Korea, Sweden, Japan and even Uruguay leap ahead of us, it’s within our power to take back control of this essential service, one created after all by the U.S. Department of Defense with public dollars. At stake is our future.