NYT

It’s the first day of school for me here in NYC, and I enjoyed talking to students about the truly excellent three-part NYT series on ESPN that ran this week. The articles were full of useful detail - ESPN as puppeteer, setting times and creating contests - and should raise student heartbeats by invoking billions and billions of dollars flowing across America.

It’s great when The Times gets it so right.

A recent piece by Edward Wyatt (“Most of U.S. is Wired, but Millions Aren’t Plugged In,” Aug. 18) got it mostly right. But there were some giant holes, and I thought I’d write about them here.

It’s great that The Times’s editors are interested in high-speed Internet access, and the piece did a good job of quoting people who are badly affected by lack of connectivity. (“People don’t even want to talk to you if you don’t know how to use the Internet,” said a retired truck driver from Alabama).

But the article didn’t completely capture the connectivity story.

For starters, the piece uses “high speed broadband” as the bar, but doesn’t explain what that means. As I wrote earlier this week, “high speed broadband” is currently used to mean anything other than dial-up access. If that’s our standard, and if we include every flavor of satellite and mobile wireless access in this definition, we’ve got a couple of problems. First, we’re missing enormous competitive problems that the country faces. We’ve got divided markets in the US (a fancy term for this might be “vertically differentiated” markets), with separate marketplaces for wired (mostly cable) and wireless connections. Second, 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload is an awfully low standard.

Next, the piece doesn’t focus on the fact that cost is a major issue in the U.S. The article mentions the issue of cost but then doesn’t dig in. A little investigation would have shown that when it comes to U.S. pricing for fixed high-speed Internet access we’re at the bottom of the list of developed countries, with some of the highest prices in the world. The OECD has found:

US is ranked 20th out of 34 countries for minimum download speed of .25 Mbps and 2GB usage (number of bits you can use before hitting a cap) a month

US 31st of 34 for 2.5 Mbps and 6GB of usage

US 26th of 34 for 15 Mbps and 11GB of usage

US 30th of 34 for 30 Mbps and 14GB of usage

US 31st of 34 for 30 Mbps and 42GB of usage

US 32nd of 34 for 45 Mbps and 18 GB of usage

US 30th of 34 for 45 Mbps and 54 GB of usage

….. Cost and value matters. If it’s too expensive relative to monthly incomes, people won’t adopt it.

Why is access here so expensive? Because we have stagnant, divided markets and zero oversight. Some exploration of this issue would have been useful to Times readers.

The article also says that smartphone use qualifies as “high-speed broadband” use. Well, as the piece says, most people with a smartphone also have a fixed connection at home – in fact, 83% of smartphone users do (download the report, look at p. 6) – and people relying on smartphone only for high-speed Internet access are subject to data use caps, capacity limitations, and expensive plans that make these connections highly-imperfect substitutes for a wire. VZ and AT&T will claim that LTE connections will be fine substitutes, but someone at The Times should be looking closely at how much use of a smartphone for 21st century “presence”-requiring uses would actually cost and whether those connections will *actually* be sufficient once lots of people are sharing them.

Look, I’m glad The Times is devoting columnage to this major social issue. But journalists of all people should see the point that unleashing human capital for innovation and self-development would be useful for the country. We’re disenfranchising tens of millions of Americans by not making it possible for them to buy a world-class, reasonably-priced connection to the Internet.

That’s a big story.