Issue 49 • Week of December 18, 2022

Both the Internet and commercial broadband turn 40 years old on January 1, 1983 after the military-run, publicly funded ARPANET switched to the public standard Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) and the first T1 data line was leased. As you begin to unwrap some new connected devices this weekend, consider that:

  1. Americans pay nearly the highest cost for the slowest data in the developed world
  2. One quarter of US households still do not have high speed Internet access at home
  3. Broadband service is entirely unavailable where 42 million Americans live

Latent demand and nascent technology held back broadband adoption early on. The Internet was too abstract or complicated for many to bother until the World Wide Web was created until 1989. Dial-up modems were slow and expensive while sparsely populated sections of the US were again challenged by its longstanding last mile problem.

Telecom competition started to accelerate from 1,400 Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in 1996 to 4,500 in 1998 and 7,000 in 2002 that brought exponentially more people online. However, efforts to close the remaining gap have been stagnant for the past decade as countless mergers and acquisitions led to duopolies or monopolies that now dominate far too many markets.

Three quarters of Americans now believe broadband is as critical as other basic necessities, yet providers have successfully resisted calls for it to be treated as a public utility like telephones and electricity despite its obvious need during the pandemic, its largely terrestrial infrastructure, and its publicly funded invention.

Why has the promise of universal broadband never been as rosy as pundits predict and what can we do to expand access?

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