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How the U.S. can avoid becoming a 'third-world country' in broadband

An expert recently warned that the U.S. risks becoming a "third-world country" in terms of broadband access. However, there are ways to prevent that.

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Credit: CNN

Since a federal court decision last month determined that the FCC cannot enforce net neutrality regulations on internet service providers (ISPs), many have warned that a de-regulated internet could result in slowed broadband speeds for high-bandwidth internet services. Susan Crawford, a law professor and author of a recent book on the subject, says consumers were experiencing this phenomenon on sites like YouTube long before the net neutrality ruling.

In a recent episode of NPR’s Fresh Air, Crawford, the author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the Gilded Age, said YouTube video buffering is often the result of an intentional degradation of service by Internet service providers (ISPs) that are trying to force Google to pay for the bandwidth it would take to stream YouTube videos at high speeds. This is just one example of a problem that could become prevalent enough to continue dragging the U.S. down in high-speed internet access. Verizon has been accused multiple times of intentionally slowing performance on Netflix, for example. If this problem continues, it could have a broad impact on the U.S. According to Ookla, the company behind NetIndex.com, the U.S. currently ranks 31st in the world with average speeds of 21 Mbps. The No. 1 country is Hong Kong at 72.8 Mbps.

RELATED: Verizon denies throttling Amazon's cloud, Netflix services

Crawford says the ISPs’ tight control of U.S. internet infrastructure is to blame for the country’s poor rankings in worldwide broadband performance. In countries like Sweden and South Korea, Crawford says consumers pay about $25 per month for gigabit symmetrical services providing broadband speeds 100-times faster than those in the U.S.

"If you tried to swap out your wireless connection or use your wireless connection instead of a cable connection for let's say, watching online video — so the average user of a wired high-speed Internet connection uses 50 gigabytes of data a month — if you tried to do that over a mobile wireless device you'd be spending $500 a month," Crawford told NPR. "That's because you may get wireless at about the same speeds, but [there are] very low capacity caps, data caps, on the usage of that connection."

If this disparity worsens in the aftermath of the net neutrality ruling, Crawford warns that the U.S. could fall significantly behind the rest of the developed world in high-speed internet access.

"Unless somebody in the system has industrial policy in mind, a long-term picture of where the United States needs to be and has the political power to act on it, we'll be a Third World country when it comes to communications," she said.

Crawford proposes two alternative routes to the current broadband market: increasing federal oversight of the current ISPs, or promoting the development of high-speed internet built within local communities.

"The other [option] is just [to] leave these guys behind and build better alternative fiber networks in each city in America," Crawford said in the interview. "And a lot of mayors are extremely interested in doing this because they see it as a street grid or a tree canopy — this is just infrastructure."

Google has already embarked on such a project with Fiber, which offers 1Gbps connection speeds for $70 per month, with the option to include TV service for a total $120 per month. The project was first rolled out in Kansas City, Kansas, and was later expanded to include Kansas City, Missouri. The next cities in line are Austin, Texas, and Provo, Utah.

The fervor that ensued after Google first announced the Fiber project and solicited applications suggests that many local communities are eager to provide 1-gig internet to their citizens. In Greenville, South Carolina, fiber proponents attempted to draw attention by gathering 1,000 residents holding colored glow sticks to spell out the word "Google," visible from an aerial view. During the selection process, an airplane flew over Google’s Mountain View, California, campus with a banner reading "Will Google Play in Peoria, Illinois?" A town in Kansas and an island off the coast of Florida each temporarily renamed themselves "Google."

These local communities may not need to wait for Google, though. A project launched in July in a small town called Olds in Alberta, Canada, brought 1Gbps internet to its 8,500 residents through a community-run ISP. The plan offered the upgrade at the same price residents were paying for their previous service, between $57 and $90 per month.

"Essentially, we have the capacity. It will actually be a really good experiment to see what people use," Nathan Kusiek, director of marketing for O-Net, the community-run ISP maintaining the network, told CBC News.

As has been shown, there are alternatives to the current state of broadband in the U.S. The situation doesn’t necessarily need to become as dire as some think it could be.

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