Where is my jetpack and/or fast internet?

People in Nova Scotia were familiar with the issues I raised about the left-behindness of those still using dial-up. If you were on dial-up five years ago, or even two years ago, you could hope that some websites were still designed for low-bandwidth users. Now with the advent of AJAX as a way to increase responsiveness of websites, there is more code loading each time we visit a “responsive” page. Awesome for me in broadband-land, bad for my patrons up the road in dial-up town. So, what happened? How did we get here? How come we ALL can get dial-up and can’t get broadband?

Well, the reaons vary but they come down to a few key points, one of the major ones being regulations. This editorial from the New York Times — The French Connections (reg. required, sorry) — contains some heavy-handed language, but also some key truths about what is different about getting everyone on dial-up versus getting everyone on broadband.

[W]e’re lagging in new applications of the Internet that depend on high speed. France leads the world in the number of subscribers to Internet TV; the United States isn’t even in the top 10.

What happened to America’s Internet lead? Bad policy. Specifically, the United States made the same mistake in Internet policy that California made in energy policy: it forgot — or was persuaded by special interests to ignore — the reality that sometimes you can’t have effective market competition without effective regulation.

You see, the world may look flat once you’re in cyberspace — but to get there you need to go through a narrow passageway, down your phone line or down your TV cable. And if the companies controlling these passageways can behave like the robber barons of yore, levying whatever tolls they like on those who pass by, commerce suffers.

America’s Internet flourished in the dial-up era because federal regulators didn’t let that happen — they forced local phone companies to act as common carriers, allowing competing service providers to use their lines. Clinton administration officials, including Al Gore and Reed Hundt, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, tried to ensure that this open competition would continue — but the telecommunications giants sabotaged their efforts, while The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page ridiculed them as people with the minds of French bureaucrats.

I’ve mentioned it before but the ONLY reason that the schools and libraries of Vermont are mostly connected is because Howard Dean (with help from the Dept, of Libraries? I’m unclear on this part) made deals with the telephone companies and cable companies eager to move in to Vermont in a favorable regulatory environment and said “you want access, you wire our schools and libraries.” The question is, how to get this sort of attention for our rural populations now that the easy money and access has been taken? [thanks susan]

8 thoughts on “Where is my jetpack and/or fast internet?

  1. Threaten to implement 802.16 (WiMAX) or 3g and take a Clearwire rep to lunch. That usually wakes up the cable and traditional telecomm folks. The bigger picture, though, is that the pols need to be reminded that lack of broadband is an impediment to business and economic growth. They’ll never do it just for libraries. This is certainly one case where de-regulation had the opposite effect than the one intended.

  2. Absolutely correct! We can’t keep our patrons connected if the bandwidth is so narrow that even a t-1 looks feels like a dial-up. The next great library problem.

  3. Hey Jessamyn –

    I was there during the dial-up era, and remember the agony of being stuck behind a 56k line when the folks at the U had T-1 or T-3 or better.

    The only way to manage the frustration was to build out powerful services that were hosted at the fast end of the connection that either provided fast remote search (WAIS) or compact navigation (Gopher) to reduce some of the hassle factor of not having infinite bandwidth on demand.

    The modern equivalent of this is the user experience of people using cell phones. My Blackberry has a browser experience reminiscent of 1993 using lynx, with dirt simple navigation and large parts of the net that are totally unreachable. What has changed, though, is that people who are smart are starting to design versions of their sites that actually work well on low bandwidth minimalist screen pessimal internet connections and get the work done that you need to get done.

    I made a list at
    of all of the “mobile” versions of sites I have found. There are precious few library catalogs there, though there should be more. With the advent of the iPhone more and more people have this minimalist sensibility, and if you focused your efforts on these needs you’d be doing the dial-up part of your patron base a service.

  4. I raise my hand as an offender here—LibraryThing uses a fair amount a Ajax. Here’s a quick defense.

    While I can understand your frustration that getting the page used to mean the end, where it might just be the beginning now, something is still usually better than nothing. Without Ajax, lots of pages just wouldn’t load until everything was “done,” and usability test show that the appearance of speed is even better than speed. (Show someone a blank page and ten seconds later an image, and they think it’s slower than if you show than if you take fifteen seconds to show the same image but you build the image in front of their eyes.)

    Also, the solution has clearly shifted away from site developers. According to Google Analytics, LibraryThing has 5% dialup users. That’s partially a self-fulfilling thing, but it’s still pretty stark.

  5. Don’t get me wrong Tim, I love Ajax-based sites. But, to be fair, you’re a vendor and can decide that you’ll lose the bottom 5% of potential customers (or whatever the numbers work out to) but if you’re the public library, you can’t or really really shouldn’t. This is sort of far-afield from my original topic, but it’s an interesting side note. Also I think web statistics regarding dial-up users are suspect. How many LT users check LT from the library but also sometimes from home, or how many potential LT users just don’t bother because they’re on dial-up?

    Again I don’t think LT is *in any way* culpable for any of this, just pointing out that it’s a terribly sticky situation, made worse by lack of knowledge of how to fix it and in many cases lack of ability to do anything at all. You and I both are in the big area of the Northeast that Verizon is trying like mad to divest itself of and for now they’re building out NOTHING because they’re preparing for and/or hoping for a buy-out

  6. Hi Jessamyn,
    I was asked by VLA to attend a pre-conference telecommunications presentation before ALA in June. As chapter councilor it made sense to send me, since I’d be there anyway. But I’m not sure I was the best representative for Vermont. I sat and politely listened to a half dozen presenters talk on and on about how they worked to improve broadband coverage in their states. Every presenter had a different strategy: coalitions, lobbying, cooperating with state officials, and consortium building. By far the most impressive report came from Kentucky where the effort was lead by the business community. In fact, libraries were not even in the mix there, although incidentally the infrastructure improvements demanded by the business community did benefit the libraries. My discomfort increased as the day went on and reached a peak when I stood and asked the question, “Do libraries even need a place at this table? It appears economic needs drive infrastructure development.” Well…as you can imagine that comment went over like a lead balloon! But I still don’t know how much we can or should do towards improving access. I know that in Vermont we have communities with little business activity, mostly in the northeast kingdom, and perhaps libraries can help rattle the cage for more access but in fact libraries in those places aren’t in any position of power. I wonder if any of us are in a powerful enough position to lobby for more boadband coverage.
    PS After attending two ALA conferences I totally understand your frustration with the system!

  7. There is actually a fairly complex history to how and why public libraries, schools and municipalities in VT got broadband cable access (from a specific vendor). You might try the folks in the Telecommunications Division of the Public Service Dept. (http://publicservice.vermont.gov/divisions/telecom.html) to get a detailed story

  8. Thanks Shelia — when I spoke to Howard Dean he took most of the credit for this, but I knew there was a lot more involved in it than just that.

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