Right now, America is in the first stages of a big change. We’re edging, slowly but surely, into the future. And technology plays a big role in where we go next.
Internet technology in particular is incredibly important for the future of the economy. After a period of technological stasis, internet capabilities are finally growing. And that growth means immense, positive change for the American workforce—if American internet service providers get on board.
Until recently, the internet service industry has been content to reap the financial benefits of the status quo: moderate broadband speeds at high prices. Providers make money, and consumers have relatively few complaints. The only problem? We already have the technology to vastly improve internet costs and capabilities; providers just aren’t taking advantage of it.
There are few exceptions, of course. Verizon launched its FiOS Internet, a fiber-optic internet service with speeds up to 500 Mbps, in 2005—well ahead of the curve. It remains the nation’s largest fiber internet provider, with availability in 16 states and more than 18 million homes, and a current customer base of five million.
But the fastest FiOS plans are expensive, ringing in at $299.99/month. Even though 18 million homes could get access to 500 Mbps internet, it’s unlikely that the majority of those homes are willing to spend upwards of $300 for it. And if FiOS isn’t already available in your town, don’t expect it anytime soon. In 2012 the company announced an end to FiOS expansion, and it hasn’t budged since.
Google is trying to pick up some of the slack, proving that it’s possible to provide faster internet for a lower price (and still make a profit). Google Fiber currently provides gigabit internet for $70/month—that’s a few hundred times faster than average broadband speeds, for nearly the same price. They also provide basic internet service (up to five Mbps) for free.
Google Fiber is currently only available in two cities—Kansas City and Provo, Utah, with service expected to come to Austin, Texas, by the middle of 2014. Google’s unusually slow fiber rollout has spurred suspicions in some. Shouldn’t a company with the size, resources, and clout of Google work more quickly to provide service to more people? Faster, more accessible internet benefits Google, of course. Faster speeds mean that Google’s products (and advertisements) get to consumers more quickly.
But in fact, Google doesn’t intend to become a serious competitor among internet service providers. They only want to prove that it’s possible to provide faster internet for less and spur other providers to do the same—something cable internet providers won’t be able to avoid for long. But that might not be soon enough for the United States, a country that has been lagging behind the developed world in internet technology.
What Faster Internet Means for the Economy
What do you picture when you think of the American workforce?
It’s likely that you picture a few big corporations, a select few people in charge, and a lot of employees—whether they’re at cubicles, in assembly lines, or behind retail counters. And that’s what the American workforce has looked like for years. But fiber internet has the potential to carry us past that increasingly obsolete model.
Fiber is already helping to phase out the office as we know it. As employees gain access to faster internet and better technology at home, teleworking is growing. The practice of working from home is up nearly 80 percent since 2005, and it’s expected to grow another 60 percent in the next five years.
That’s a good thing for the American economy. Teleworking results in more productive employees and employers. More than two thirds of employers report increased productivity from employees who work from home. Teleworking reduces time wasted in meetings, minimizes the resources and money employers spend on employees, and it allows employers to easily scale staffing based on their needs. And according to market research firm Global Workplace Analytics, teleworking could increase national productivity by $334–467 billion every year.
This flexible method of working is better for employees, too. It greatly widens the net of available jobs, especially to those in rural areas. It lowers stress, eliminates commutes, and reduces employee turnover. And it’s clear that teleworking is the way of the future. Global Workplace Analytics reports that 79 percent of workers, particularly Gen-Y workers, would like to work from home. Thirty-six percent would choose the opportunity to telecommute over a pay raise, and the same percentage would accept a pay cut of 10 percent in exchange for working at home.
But teleworking isn’t the only benefit that fiber internet brings to the American economy. Faster, more widely available internet gives anyone with a computer access to the resources they need to be more creative, more innovative, and more entrepreneurial. And that means an increase in startups—which in turn means new business ideas and new employment opportunities. It also means more economic diversity and development.
The Next Steps for Fiber
Can Google Fiber’s ploy to make internet faster and more affordable actually work? That depends on whom you ask. CenturyLink, AT&T, Comcast, and other internet providers have announced plans to up their speeds and lower their prices—especially in Google Fiber areas. But the United States still lags behind other countries in terms of both cost and capability of internet service.
Reports last summer announced that the United States had slipped to ninth in worldwide internet speeds. With an average download speed of 8.6 Mbps, the United States fell far behind number-one South Korea (14.2 Mbps). The country was also beat out by Japan, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Latvia, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and Sweden.
And things could be even worse than they seem. According to internet metrics firm Ookla, which collects up-to-the-minute data on internet speeds around the world, the United States doesn’t even break the top twenty. That’s going to need to change if the United States wants to continue to compete in the global economy.
But what’s holding us back isn’t necessarily technology—it’s policy. As venture capitalist Marc Andreessen argued recently, improving internet technologies will take a “mind-boggling” amount of money, and internet service providers need to see returns on their investments in order to continue spending that money.
Last week’s ruling on net neutrality may make that more complicated. According a federal court ruling, the Federal Communications Commission may no longer force providers to treat all internet traffic equally. That means, for example, that an internet service provider could allow Netflix to have higher speeds while making HuluPlus slower. It could also get political, with internet service providers blocking websites that promote certain views.
Though the consequences of the ruling aren’t immediately apparent, it seems likely to have a negative effect on consumers, who could see higher prices for internet service and more difficulty getting online. The ruling could also inhibit future growth and deployment of broadband, as companies now have incentive to charge more for access and exclude competing services.
The FCC plans to fight the ruling, which could mean appealing the court’s decision or reclassifying internet service providers to allow for better regulation. And as for the future of broadband? We’ll have to wait and see.