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Density and Broadband

So one thing I've heard about why America's broadband service is so much worse than that available in South Korea and Japan is that the American population is much more spread out. That's a fair enough point. Connectivity is easier to achieve in densely-settled areas, so a country like America with a big proportion of the population living in low-density settlement isn't going to achieve what hyper-urban Japan has in this regard. And insofar as people want to trade off big backyards for high speed internet, who am I to complain. But that only addresses part of the point. It isn't only that America on average doesn't have East Asian levels of average internet fastness. Even in big, dense cities we don't have the kind of access speeds that the Asians achieve. If urban America were just as wired as urban Asia, but contained a smaller proportion of overall America, then that would just be the way things shook out. But moving to Manhattan (or, say, Washington, DC) still doesn't give you access to Japanese-style super-high-speed consumer broadband. So that's bad.

The other thing is that part of the reason Americans live all spread-out is that we've historically adopted policies designed to facilitate this. The federal government subsidizes big old highways cutting through swathes of emptiness and linking them up. There was the rural electricification campaign, of course. The Universal Service Fee subsidizes rural (and some exurban, I think) phone bills. Medicare has special provisions designed to try and maintain the viability of rural medical services. And of course there are farm subsidies, which get most of the ink. I have mixed feelings at best about these measures, but they're very much part of the American fabric. And it seems to me that insofar as we're going to maintain this suite of federal supports for low density living, we might as well do enough of it to make sure it works. That means undertaking the 21st century equivalent of the Interstate Highway System and creating a proper IT infrastructure out there.

But even if we don't do that, we ought to at least take appropriate policy measures to ensure that High-Density America is the best it can be.

April 16, 2005 | Permalink


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» Broadband in the boondocks from Half Sigma
Matthew Yglesias is complaining about the quality of broadband in the U.S., especially in rural areas, and he recommends some kind of government program to bring broadband to rural areas. My high speed DSL in Arlington, Virgina (across the [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 16, 2005 2:35:05 PM

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Matt Yglesias with a comment on the broadband disparity between the US and Asia. [Read More]

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Matthew Yglesias has some interesting observations about broadband penetration and population density. There is a huge urban-rural divide in the United States over broadband availablity and quality. In some rural areas, broadband remains hard to get, a... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 17, 2005 6:53:09 AM


Wouldn't farm subsidies, to the extent that they do anything, concentrate development, by increasing the value of farming relative to other land uses?

A bigger reason for America's spread is probably the home mortgage deduction, which makes home ownership much cheaper.

Posted by: allen claxton | Apr 16, 2005 12:28:14 PM

Recent post, I can't remember where, about Verizon and other telecoms buying legislation that makes it impossible for government entities or public utilities to offer broadband. This is rapidly turning into a situation where "free enterprise" uses their money (collected from existing monopoly) to buy another monopoly. Bottom line- in my county broadband is intended to be free, part of a county-wide upgrade of electric utility service in which broadband will pay for itself because the traditional meter-reader will be replaced by real-time monitoring of electric usage. If the telecoms can outlaw this in my state they'll get to charge $60 per month for a service that should be free.

Posted by: serial catowner | Apr 16, 2005 12:34:27 PM

Please read up on this history of the Bell System, both in the 1920s and 1960s. Especially read AT&T's arguements in the Carterfone decision.

We could have 6 Mb DSL service to 90% of US households in less than a year if it were required to fend off a threatened alien invasion. What we can't have is universal DSL service at the kind of profit margins and with the kind of economic and political control that the reconstitued Bell System and its political masters want.

The two remaining Bells are out there paying off state legislators and the FCC to get laws and regulations passed prohibiting municipalities from building universal Internet access systems. That tells you all you need to know.


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Apr 16, 2005 12:38:19 PM

rural electricification campaign . . . I have mixed feelings at best about these measures

I understand that you have "mixed" feelings about government policies designed to encourage large yards or designed to encourage rural settlement. Rural electrification, however, was not designed to encourage any such thing. Rather, it was a government works project designed to bring Americans who were already living in rural areas out of crushing, debilitating poverty.

The most well-know of such projects were those procured by then-Congressman Lyndon Johnson in the 1930s. The first book of Robert Caro's Lyndon Johnson biography, The Path to Power, describes Johnson's efforts, and captures the third-world-like poverty of the residents of central Texas' Hill Country. Before electrification, the women of the Hill Country faced what can only be described as a crushing regimen of washing, ironing, canning, baking that left them stooped, crippled, and broken in their thirties. These people, before electrification, lived not like Americans in the 1930s, but rather like people of the Middles Ages.

Posted by: Matt Taylor | Apr 16, 2005 1:03:18 PM

You liberals! Always trying to impose your technocratic vision of America on poor red-staters, who for all you know might just LIKE their Internet slow.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Apr 16, 2005 1:23:45 PM

Um...your characterization of Japan isn't quite accurate.

Posted by: Wrye | Apr 16, 2005 1:33:57 PM

Matt Taylor was on the money about rural electrification. MYs youth is showing again. MSM sold its soul on issues like Nafta for supposedly better international enforcement of copywright laws, let's hope MY wouldn't abandon the rural poor(the dirty red bastards) for better performance of his on-line video games.

Posted by: Michael7843853 | Apr 16, 2005 2:28:02 PM

I don't have the numbers, but I am under the impression Japan is surprisingly behind America in both computer and internet usage.

Posted by: Nick Kaufman | Apr 16, 2005 2:28:37 PM

Incidentally, while I live about 50 miles from Seattle, geography and markets mean that you can't get broadcast television or a major daily paper delivered to your house. The dish costs about $50 a month for pap. The two major forms of entertainment here (aside from rented videos) are the Native American casino and community theater/revivals/food festivals. We also have a locally owned weekly paper, one of the best I think in the U.S., but the publisher shrewdly avoids any news from out of the county, except in the form of newstories where county residents tell where they've been.

To be well-informed out here, you have to be on the web, but what a difference that makes. On the web you have more resources than you did living in the center of a large city before the web.

If we want people to make good choices we need to give them the chance to learn. The horse certainly won't drink if there's no water to lead it to.

Posted by: serial catowner | Apr 16, 2005 2:52:10 PM

Al Gore announced support for the internet and upping national wandwidth.

Therefore it must be bad.

Posted by: MonkeyBoy | Apr 16, 2005 2:54:05 PM

"Communism is Soviet rule plus the electrification of the whole country." -- Comrade Lenin.

"For us to build up a hydro-electric station is the same as for a peasant to buy a gramophone instead of a cow." -- Comrade Stalin.

"I have mixed feelings at best about these measures" -- Mister Yglesias.

Posted by: abb1 | Apr 16, 2005 3:07:59 PM

I see Matt has confused rural electrification with suburban sprawl. The demographics are very plain about the concentration of population in major urban areas. The upswing in rural population has only taken place recently, with the increase of retirement incomes.

An understandable mistake, considering his self-proclaimed history as an urban person.

Posted by: serial catowner | Apr 16, 2005 3:39:24 PM

And, uh, WOW, he really doesn't get it about the farm subsidies. The farm subsidies support a monocrop mechanized agriculture. The population in rural counties dominated by farm subsidy agriculture has dropped radically. Thousands of acres can be farmed by a few hired hands. The railroad carrying grain to transport centers uses less labor than almost any other kind of transport.

The irrigation projects, as originally written, were intended to preserve the rural population, with a 600-cre limit on how many acres you could irrigate with subsidized water. Over the years this has become another fief of the agricultural monopolists, basically an outright subsidy where 90% of the benefits go to one grain exporter.

Together, these two elements have led to a massive drop in rural employment, and concentration of population in urban areas.

Posted by: serial catowner | Apr 16, 2005 3:52:43 PM

I fail to see the problem here. My broadband is absolutely fast enough for all my purposes (and I routinely send and receive files for work over one meg). This is a little like complaining that the Germans make cars which do 140 mph while Detroit doesn't when no one really has a need to drive that fast.

Posted by: JonF | Apr 16, 2005 4:16:49 PM

Re: A bigger reason for America's spread is probably the home mortgage deduction, which makes home ownership much cheaper.

Would this also not favor home ownership in urban areas? Most of America's cities are not like NYC, and have lots of single family homes, much of it going to rot and ruin unfortunately.
Ultimately though we need to remember that the UIS government is not some command and control dictatorship. If the government subsidizes sprawl it's because that's how people want to iive. Since very early times Americans have had a distrust of cities and a strong preferrence for land ownership. Probably goes back to the fact that so many of their ancestors were peasants who hated the urban elite of Europe (who had oppressed them for centuries) and came to America in search of cheap land.

Posted by: JonF | Apr 16, 2005 4:23:21 PM

Umm, I think people hated the landed elite of Europe which oppressed them in the countryside as much as or more than teh urban elite which oppressed them in the urban areas.

Won't speculate on why Americans like to spread out, need to think about it more.

Posted by: MDtoMN | Apr 16, 2005 5:18:42 PM

I fail to see the problem here. My broadband is absolutely fast enough for all my purposes (and I routinely send and receive files for work over one meg). This is a little like complaining that the Germans make cars which do 140 mph while Detroit doesn't when no one really has a need to drive that fast.

Hmm. First, 1 meg downloads don't exactly put you in power-user territory. Sling multi-gig files on a regular basis and you'll start to feel the inadequacy of today's technologies.

But beyond that, there are many new and existing applications that would be made possible or improved with a better data infrastructure. Right now I pay for phone, DSL and satellite TV service to my home. There's no reason I should have to, though -- a big and reliable pipe for switched packets could handle all of those. Accomplish that and you could put an end to analog broadcasting, freeing up huge amounts of spectrum for digital wireless services, community radio or other uses. Make the data backhaul cheap enough and people will give away wireless access to it -- imagine walking down the street, your cellphone switching between next-to-free VoIP service and your mobile carrier's network, as needed. Imagine getting any television station in the world on your TV. Imagine making the FCC next to irrelevant, and your total monthly information services bill plummet.

And who knows how many other applications there are that you and I can't imagine? The point is that many of these technologies exist now, and they have the potential to create a large amount of wealth.

The problem is that that wealth will primarily be for consumers. Broadband technology doesn't have much potential for making data brokers money, as AOL is finding out. VoIP will put some phone companies out of business. Ala carte cable (whether IPTV or not) will kill off some channels. Data is becoming a bulk good. And here these companies are, with massive amounts of capital invested in infrastructures that are obsolete as soon as they're built. Many of them have ties to the content producers who're dreading faster consumer broadband. The only course of action that makes sense for them is to release consumer data technologies at a trickle, withholding available innovations until the last round is paid off. Legislative efforts to mandate competition within privately owned infrastructures are a nice thought, but with a few exceptions (speakeasy, for example) laughably ineffective.

That's why it's worth making this infrastructure public. Let the Comcasts and Verizons buy access to it, but take control out of their hands.

Posted by: tom | Apr 16, 2005 5:49:07 PM

'slinging 1 gig files' doesnt sound like something the average consumer would be doing. Gov't expansion of broadband sounds like it might be just another case of welfare for our poor beleaguered businessmen.

Posted by: Michael7843853 | Apr 16, 2005 6:20:09 PM

JonF kinda has it right. In America it's not about being best or being competitive- it's about a monopoly finding a constituency that will keep the pork coming.

His example of the automobile is a good one. Americans don't really like to drive, they'd rather talk on the phone, eat a burger, or put on their makeup. American carmakers have realized they can sell an inferior product by putting a cowboy hat on it. Add some talk about "safety" so you can keep better imports out and judicious tax breaks to buy off "influentials", throw in a few television sets for the drivers (sic), and you have a winner. And, what the hell, if you have a loser, the government will give you a billion-dollar loan to "preserve competition" in the auto industry.

Or do the short form- do the people who run the country really WANT us to be better informed?

Posted by: serial catowner | Apr 16, 2005 6:27:59 PM

Matt Taylor is dead wrong about rural electrification. To the extent rural electrification made rural life more pleasant, it discouraged people from moving to the cities. That's exactly what Yglesias is talking about. It's a policy that encouraged a large segment of the population to remain in rural areas even when it was economically inefficient. Matt Taylor might be correct that rural electrification didn't encourage rural settlement, but it certainly discouraged rural desettlement.

Posted by: Xavier | Apr 16, 2005 6:47:23 PM

Just think of the massive estates the wealthy could have if those damn rural poor could be herded into urban ghettos or inner ring burbs. Just think of the uber-efficient farm factories.

Posted by: Michael7843853 | Apr 16, 2005 7:19:23 PM

Re: Hmm. First, 1 meg downloads don't exactly put you in power-user territory.

True, but how many people out there do even that much? Most people use the internet for casual browsing, shopping, email, chat rooms, gaming-- that sort of thing. There just isn't a need (except on the tiniest scale) for the sort of power-broadband Matt is talking about. If there were a solid demand for that, we'd have it, just as we'd have cars that go 140mph if that's what people wanted or a whole fleet of supersonic passenger aircraft if the public valued that type of speed highly enough.
We might also remember that the telecom industry took a huge bath a few years ago when they overbuilt infrastructure in the 90s and found that there really wans't the demand for it. Lots of telecom engineers are still unemployed.
In short, I don't feel that this is an example of America "falling behind" any more than our lack of 140mph cars or of Concorde-like aircraft is.
Just because a technology is possible doesn't mean it's desirable or that everyone MUST have it.

Posted by: JonF | Apr 16, 2005 7:29:46 PM

Re: Umm, I think people hated the landed elite of Europe which oppressed them in the countryside as much as or more than teh urban elite which oppressed them in the urban areas.

By the late 18th and 19th century centuries the landed elite had long since moved to the cities where they had more or less merged with the haute bourgeois, living as absentee landlords over vast tracts of rural land, where the peasants toiled while Milord was partying at Versailles, enjoiyng the ballet in St Petersburg or hobnobbing with the Habsburgs in Vienna.

Posted by: Jonf | Apr 16, 2005 7:32:49 PM

Interesting discussion. And there is, I think, a proper parallel between government subsidy of communications infrastructure and its subsidies of other infrastructure, e.g., highways and railroads, electrification, and reservoirs and irrigation.

However, with the current regime of kleptocrats in charge, there's not a snowball's chance in hell it'll ever happen.

These people are about spoils-system politics, not improving the commonwealth.

Posted by: bleh | Apr 16, 2005 8:06:52 PM

who cares about faster broadband? I could read your column with a 300 baud dialup, which leaves quite a bit of remaining bandwidth in 80kb/sec dsl. what do you consider "proper IT infrastructure"? I'd prefer spending less time keeping my wife's antivirus, antispam and stupidity filters updated to having more bandwidth.

Posted by: supersaurus | Apr 16, 2005 8:18:00 PM

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