People who get frustrated about their cat GIFs loading too slowly have long thought fiber broadband was the next great technological revolution after the smartphone, but US politics, geography, and economics will likely prevent it from taking the country by storm. In several countries, including Japan, South Korea, and Sweden, fiber broadband has gained widespread acceptance, with between 20-30% of residents enjoying average speeds of 150mps according to a 2016 OCED report. For reference, in the US roughly 4% of people currently have fiber broadband. Of those that have fiber broadband, the fastest speed offered on that fiber is 50mps, and according to a 2008 Oxford study. The internet speed of the average American is around 5.2mps.
When it comes to internet access, the US is in the middle of the pack for broadband access and speed. According to Pew Research the US already has a modest 73% general broadband penetration on average, concentrated in urban areas. Outside of cities with dense populations, laying fiber cables often does not make economic sense for companies. Unsurprisingly, states with higher average income have higher average internet speeds, according to a US provider, Akamai. Both the past and current presidential administrations promised to expand broadband internet to rural and low-income areas, but have had limited success. With bipartisan support in Congress and in the white house, why has the expansion of high-speed broadband been so slow?
The short answer is economics. Longer wires require more investment. Installing fiber optic wire is a costly endeavor, and not guaranteed to be profitable. Higher speeds come at a higher cost, and not all regular internet users are convinced they need to spend more for higher speeds. In countries with high fiber penetration, such as Japan, strong government subsidies and crowded living areas means companies can offer fiber internet to a larger number of people with positive economic benefits.
Rural areas pose different problems to internet companies. According to the 2010 US Census, rural areas cover 97% of the nation’s land area, but house only 19% of its citizens. Getting any type of broadband to these rural citizens has been challenging. It remains to be seen if the 2017 Connect America subsidy from the FCC will be strong enough to make internet access ubiquitous in rural America.
Fiber broadband may one day revolutionize the internet. According to CTIA, data use is growing exponentially, with data use tripling between 2013 and 2015. People will soon need faster speeds to conduct business at the same pace they already enjoy. The US faces several challenges in setting up the next wave of high-speed broadband internet. Under the current political climate, it is unlikely to that subsidies will be set up to fund high speed fiber broadband. Perhaps as fiber broadband technology gets cheaper it will slowly creep its way across the country, but for now the American people, and their cat GIFs, will have to wait.