Why the US should build a national internet system

The infrastructure is already in place.
The infrastructure is already in place.
Image: Reuters/Eric Thayer
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Earlier this month, The Daily Yonder, a well-named site about life in rural America, brought us this unsettling map of broadband availability, or lack thereof, in the country’s remote counties:

The Daily Yonder.
The Daily Yonder.

Truth is, the connectivity of US cities is nothing to brag about either. A 2012 report from the New America Foundation found that residents of major American cities pay more money for slower Internet service than their counterparts in major cities around the world. Case in point: in Hong Kong, roughly $35 gets you access to a fiber-optics network with 500 Mbps download speed; in New York or Washington, it gets you a cable network at 25 Mbps.

The point is that broadband service in the United States is neither what it could be nor what it should be. Yes, the vast majority of Americans have access to very basic Internet service, but here the devil’s in the details. Too many rural residents lack even minimal access; too many big cities lack the competition that would create world-class service; and for whatever reason—be it access, cost, quality, or something else—100 million Americans don’t subscribe to broadband service at all.

Here’s an idea to change that: let’s build a National Internet System under the National Highway System.

The concept isn’t a new one—it was most recently floated out there by Benjamin Lennett and Sascha Meinrath of New America in early 2009—but it remains viable and merits a comeback. Lennett and Meinrath argue that broadband access is a basic public service every bit as necessary as good roads. Since 90% of the country lives within 5 miles of a national highway, and since utility infrastructure is already planted along highway rights-of-way, bundling the network is the simplest and surest way for service to reach everyone.

“Our idea was that you create this open infrastructure, so that anyone could come in and provide connectivity,” says Lennett. “It would be a public asset along the highway system.”

The obvious benefit of such a system would be its national scope. Rural regions that private providers might consider unprofitable and ignore would gain broadband access, but remote areas wouldn’t be the only victors. So-called “middle mile” access would improve, too, meaning internet service in smaller cities and towns wouldn’t have to go out of its way to reach big interconnection hubs in major areas, leading to faster speeds.

The economic boost, meanwhile, could be gigantic. Private service provider competition would increase, especially in major cities; small businesses could count on fast and reliable access at a fair price; the telecommunications network in general would become more secure and robust. Imagine all the productivity advantages that Google Fiber is bringing to Kansas City, writ large across the country.

And let’s not forget the Department of Transportation’s push toward an intelligent transportation system. Connecting cars with traffic infrastructure via roadside networks has the potential to reduce congestion and increase safety in metro areas and beyond. Laying fiber along the national highways would facilitate the arrival of this “smart” roads system that DOT believes is the future of American car travel.

“You’re going to need higher [broadband] capacity along highways anyway,” says Lennett. “It’s a heck of a lot cheaper to have some sort of public asset that the states and local governments can use, versus paying for it from a private provider.”

Which brings us to the cost. A plan to pair broadband infrastructure with national highway construction or repair creates natural savings; after all, the Federal Highway Administration says that 90% of the cost of deploying fiber-optics is related to road work. Installing fiber (or, at the very least, pipe conduits to house it) during open road construction costs roughly $30,000 per mile. At a low-end cost of $3 million per mile of road, therefore, the plan only adds about 1% to each national highway project.

With those advantages in mind, Lennett and Meinrath estimate that a national broadband network could be laid along the entire national highway system for roughly $3.6 billion. In the great pie of transportation funding, that’s a sliver.

Other efforts have been made in recent years to expand the US broadband network, but while Lennett calls them “positive steps forward,” he doesn’t believe they’ve gone far enough. (Others agree.)

The National Broadband Plan of 2009, for instance, was mostly limited to policy recommendations and failed to encourage competition (which explains why incumbent providers like it so much). Proposed legislation requiring highway projects to install broadband conduit hasn’t made it too far. The Obama Administration did issue an executive order last year calling for a “dig once” [PDF] policy to help promote broadband-highway coupling, but that still relies on private enterprise to do what it hasn’t done to date: lay fiber everywhere.

So why not make the whole national internet system a public one, like the national highway system before it? At a time when elected officials are struggling to find a truly federal transportation goal, the concept might serve as a welcome rallying point. The government could sell some of its broadcast spectrum to foot the bill, but the user-pay model could probably work well, too—especially since people don’t suffer the illusion that Internet access is free, unlike they do with roads.

“There is a really interesting parallel between transportation and broadband,” says Lennett. “In the 20th century we needed to move cars, and in the 21st century we need to move bits.”

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of The King’s Best Highway: The Lost History of the Boston Post Road, the Route That Made America. He lives in New York.

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