By Susan Crawford
April 15, 2013 Wired - I’ve said before that it’s time to fix the pitifully slow, expensive Internet access in the United States: It is ridiculous that 19 million Americans can’t subscribe to high-speed Internet access because they live in areas that private companies believe are too expensive to serve. It’s even more ridiculous that one of the most technologically savvy countries in the world can’t offer reasonable prices compared to other places.
We used to say that the Internet allows everyone to be a publisher; now, with equal upload to download capacity over gigabit connections reaching homes through Google Fiber, that will actually be true in Austin.
But I don’t want Google serving the whole country, because we still need policies that lower the barriers to entry for competitors. Without competition the incumbents won’t invest in offering better service.
Yet … there is something very valuable about the news that Google Fiber is coming to Austin. It makes clear that America’s current backward status when it comes to high-speed internet access isn’t inevitable. It makes companies like AT&T want to act (sort of). And most importantly, it makes people get why high-speed access matters.
This is a different phase, not an incremental improvement. The difference between the standard Internet access that shapes our imagination and a fiber-to-the-home connection is as great as the difference between no electricity and an electrified life. But only if we see this difference, only if we understand what’s possible, can we change our expectations. And that’s the most important thing about the Google Fiber efforts.
When’s the last time a city did something so exciting that people from every walk of life and every part of town were talking about it? That’s the reaction Google Fiber sparked in Kansas City, and now the excitement — and electrical current of fiber-to-the-home connections — will reach Austin, Texas. After a decade of slow, incremental increase in the speed of high-speed Internet access connections, creative types living in Austin will suddenly be able to collaborate in making films and doing anything else that requires shipping big data around.
Notice that the excitement goes beyond the creative types, though. The idea of being part of the next generation of online life appeals to people who aren’t creatives and who don’t code. Something about the prospect of a gigabit network reaching their homes captures the imagination, moves the spirit, makes people of all backgrounds feel energized, and gets them talking.
Another important side effect of the Google Fiber move is the response by incumbents like AT&T. Their PR department issued a press release the same day stating that the company was “prepared” to build “infrastructure” in Austin “capable of ” gigabit speeds. This was “fiber to the press release” — a careful hedge by AT&T, which didn’t say it would actually wire houses and businesses for symmetrical gigabit service … or then offer that service at a reasonable price.
But at least AT&T is beginning to recognize people might actually want a high-capacity connection someday. (Time Warner Cable is sticking to its story that no one wants a gigabit, and the company is careful not to talk about uploads; currently architected cable systems don’t allow for gigabit upload speeds.)
All of this is about the electrifying power of imagination. Exactly the same thing happened in America when electricity was brought into common use. In fact, many of the phrases we use to describe big ideas and geniuses come from that era: “He’s a live wire.” “That sparks the imagination.” “An electrifying performance.” Bright lights, big city.
Here’s the thing: When electricity first showed up we actually didn’t know what to do with it. People thought it was only good for street lamps and not appropriate for houses.
That’s why George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla proposed to provide electricity to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair; they wanted to demonstrate that electricity could change lives in America. Want to fire the imagination? Display the world’s first fully electric kitchen. Suddenly, everyone wants one.
That’s the real value of Google Fiber. We’ve got a lot of policy to fix to get world-class high-speed Internet access everywhere. But before we get into the weeds of communications policy, let’s build the buzz. We’ll need it to get through the next few years of battles.