Sunday, January 27, 2013

21st Century Infrastructure

Recently, there has been much discussion about the need for more government investment in our infrastructure. Most of us think about bridges and roads when we hear infrastructure. The world is changing rapidly and our infrastructure investments need to keep pace with those changes. Instead of building transportation infrastructure to connect us physically, why not build 21st century infrastructure to connect us electronically?

America has a long legacy of leading the world with its infrastructure investments. We built the transcontinental railroads to connect our vast nation which assisted the industrialization of the 19th century. We built the interstate highways and the first air transportation infrastructure in the 20th century, and our national mobility and commerce expanded at an unprecedented level. The Rural Electrification Act provided electricity service to our entire nation so that everyone would have access to and could participate in the market for new electronic appliances. In each case, entrepreneurs developed new products and businesses to serve the new customer base.

Wireless technology has evolved quickly, and new standards such as 802.11ac Wi-Fi provides Gbps connectivity. Today, most businesses and homes have wireless connectivity that can support real-time streaming of HD video. Now the bottleneck is the wired connections to those businesses and homes throughout America.

What if we provided 1Gbit/s fiber-optic internet to every business and household in America? How much more productive would our workforce be? How many more of us would telecommute? Would those of us living in depressed communities be able to find jobs in growing regions of our country or even other parts of the world? What types of new business opportunities would this enable? What new applications would innovative entrepreneurs find in entertainment? in remote medicine? in e-commerce? in virtual classrooms?

We live in an age where access to data is essential, where mining data is a huge industry, where online learning is a necessity, where e-commerce is out-pacing other types of commerce, where many types of business enterprise can be accomplished anywhere on the globe. What better way to provide our communities with a competitive advantage than to provide a 200X increase in internet speeds?

But wait, maybe fast internet is no longer a competitive advantage. Is it possible that we need better 21st century infrastructure just to remain equal to our competition in other countries? Take a look at the broadband infrastructure ranking by country, as published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD):
The U.S. is ranked 15th for broadband access. For this graph, OECD defines broadband as 256 kbit/s or more. Is OECD serious? 256 kbit/s is hardly adequate for the vast amounts of data being transferred over the internet by today's applications. If you try to video conference using apps like Skype, 256 kbit/s will not get you there. For those of us who stream video with services such as Netflix, we know that 256 kbit/s is completely inadequate. If you look at the Fibre/LAN dark blue columns on this chart, you will notice that the U.S. is even further behind. South Korea, which already has the world's fastest internet, is in the process of installing Gbit/s fiber-optic infrastructure to every home. This new Gbit/s internet will be 200X faster that the average American household. For this screaming fast internet, South Koreans will pay approximately $27/month.

There is an example that is even closer to home than South Korea. In 2011, Chattanooga Tennessee completed a fiber-optic network that covers 600 square-miles and provides Gbit/s internet to all of its 170,000 businesses and homes. Chattanooga's infrastructure investment is already paying off. Major corporations, technology firms, and call centers are opening and expanding. A local Venture Capital firm, Lamp Post Group, is attracting and investing in start-up companies that are exploring business opportunities made possible by the large bandwidth.

The question is obvious: why not? Why not invest in America's 21st century infrastructure? Why not build America's modern infrastructure into the world's best again?

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