Rant: American broadband, what’s wrong with you?

The next time you turn off the video feature during a Google Hangout or Skype video call, don’t blame those companies. American broadband is the culprit.

American broadband, what’s wrong with you?
Credit: Thinkstock

During a typical week, I attend five to 10 video calls, typically using Google Hangouts or Skype. Frequently, these calls are international. Video collaboration is preferable because the other participants’ expression and attentiveness can be observed and data or code can be shared. Except in the United States, where often the group of video callers turns off the video stream due to bandwidth limitations.

The high quality of international video calls compared to choppy domestic video calls has me wavering between anger and the verge of total despair. I admit that my story and data are personal and anecdotal, but I don’t think I’m alone because I’ve had many people turn down offers to connect with a video call in favor of plain old telephone service (POTS) calls.

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During the past 25 years, I have worked for or consulted to many telecom equipment companies. Notable in this case: In 2004, I worked for Convoq, which beat Skype to market with a desktop video and data collaboration app. From 1993 to 1998, I consulted to VideoServer, which built the first multipoint videoconferencing bridge. And just prior to the post-2000 internet bust telecom nuclear winter, I worked for PhotonEx, which built multi-terabit, long-haul, TC-IP, fiber-optic transport equipment.

I still remember the specifications of the ITU standard video and audio codecs and the sense of rapture I felt when the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) published the DIFFSERV RFC in 1998 that specified routing and latency priorities for real-time audio and video traffic. All broken promises of the bright future on the American internet.

Skype and Google Hangouts don’t suck; it’s the American broadband network

At a time when virtual reality is on the verge of delivering 3D virtual communications, and Hangouts and Skype are free, many people rely on old-fashioned one-dimensional POTS voice conferencing. They don’t use Skype and Google Hangouts because their bad experiences with video calls convinced them that the quality of these apps isn’t good enough.

To prove that Skype and Hangouts aren’t the problem, make some international friends. The amazing SDTV-quality experience of international Skype and Google Hangouts convincingly proves that Skype and Hangout engineers have built highly optimized apps and high-performance platforms. The responsibility for the low-quality experience falls on American broadband networks.

Recently, I have been on Skype and Hangout videoconferences to Beijing; Dresden, Germany; Dusseldorf, Germany; Berlin; Seoul, South Korea; Medina, Saudi Arabia; and Ramallah, Palestine. The voice and video quality were fantastic, the latency low, and the video and voice synchronization perfect. Yet last night I was on a call with project team members within 10 miles of one another in the Boston area, and we had to turn off our video to relieve the packet delay and loss that were making the discussion unintelligible. We were all connected via high-speed Verizon FiOS and Comcast broadband.

This experience making local video calls isn’t an isolated incidence. I have encountered the same problem with video calls between Boston and Silicon Valley. The video quality during recent calls with Github in San Francisco and Facebook’s San Francisco site—which you would expect to be tightly connected with the fastest internet to promote innovation—was terrible when compared to any of the international calls.

U.S. broadband doesn’t make the top 10 list

Akamai’s [state of the internet] Q1 2016 report (pdf) doesn’t list the U.S. in the top 10 of the global broadband list.

top 10 global broadband countries Akamai

Akamai doesn’t report the complete standing of all countries, so we don’t know where the U.S. falls on the list. But in each comparative category that was measured, peak speed, average speed and the percentage of subscribers with broadband service above 15 mbps, U.S. broadband lags.

us broadband statistics

Widows, orphans and entrepreneurs:
The U.S. should copy South Korean regulators and legislators

South Koreans are much too polite to insult an American by saying the U.S. legislative and regulatory process is the problem. A letter (pdf) from U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler asking Wheeler to block municipalities from deploying cheap and fast broadband to protect incumbent telecom companies points to the problem.

South Korea regulates the internet backbone and internet access networks differently. The internet backbone is regulated like a utility, the same way the old AT&T was regulated and the way electric utilities in the U.S. are regulated today. Growth in network transport capacity, capital expenses and operating expenses are predictable, like the demand for electricity. This predictability enables South Korea’s backbone providers to be managed to produce a safe, predicable yield to investors while meeting the demands of the broadband providers.

South Korean broadband access networks are fairly unregulated, opening up the market to competition. Entrepreneurial broadband providers compete, reducing the cost per megabyte per second to less than half of what U.S. consumers pay, according to 2014 data compiled by the OECD (xlsx), while delivering higher speeds.

There are bright spots, though. Google Fiber and municipal broadband services such as the City of Chattanooga’s Gigabit broadband are forcing incumbents to upgrade their services. In response to Google Fiber deployments, Comcast committed to deliver 2 Gbps internet access in Atlanta and Time Warner committed to provide 1 Gbps service in Charlotte, North Carolina. But quality video calls depend on the broadband that connects both endpoints.

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