Friday, June 21, 2013

It's The Infrastructure, Stupid

I think I may be one of something like 11 people in the country who are happy with their cable company.  That said, my cable company doesn't sell me cable; they sell me internet service.  When I bought cable service from them it was terrible and then there were 10 people in the country who were happy with their cable providers.

But I am pretty happy with my cable internet service.  It's fairly reliable and I can get 15 MB/s service from them for a reasonable price.

But if Google Fiber showed up in my neighborhood tomorrow?  Sorry Shentel, "don't let the door hit you," as the saying goes.  

Google Fiber's roll-out into the Kansas City area has been nothing short of breathtaking.  Delivering speeds almost two orders of magnitude faster than anything else you can get in most of the country at prices comparable to far inferior services, Google Fiber has spurred, as CNET puts it, a "startup renaissance" in the  region and it's all down to infrastructure.

I am old enough to remember Bill Clinton's campaign for President in 1992 and his affable emphasis on the "information superhighway."  That phrase has been more or less consigned to the 1990s -- we understand the world of computer networking in far more native terms these days -- but Clinton's wording has its merits.  Like a super-highway, network development has huge up-front costs and all kinds of secondary, tertiary, and even more removed benefits that make its true value to a community very hard to quantify.

Yet that value is obvious, even from afar.

Sometime, if you're not feeling too busy, look around your community and find the old roads that carried traffic before the interstate came through.  For me that's US Route 11, which winds its way up the Shenandoah Valley, dodging over and under I-81.  If you drive 11 today you'll see that it is lined with old tire shops, restaurants, motels, and tourist attractions -- Pixar really hit the nail on the head with Cars -- all run down and abandoned now the infrastructure has passed them by.  Meanwhile, the communities served by the interstate are bigger than ever and little pools of prosperity well up at each exit, be they are large as a city or as small as a few gas stations and a McDonalds.

Meaningful internet connectivity has much the same effect.  I work in a corporate research park with humming racks of servers flinging digital packets down needle thin filaments of glass.  Office space is inexpensive here and lots of businesses get by with small offices, third-hand furniture, and college interns to cut costs but the one component they can't compromise on is connectivity.

Yes, labor is important.  Yes, office space is crucial.  Yes, you've got to have housing and services, restaurants, entertainment venues, transportation, a night-life, shopping, etc but much of that will come as the local economy grows.  What communities need at first to tempt entrepreneurs into setting up that first business in a basement or a garage is connectivity.  A couple of college students, a case of Mountain Dew, a few laptops, and a connection to the internet could very well end up with the next billion dollar idea.

And yet the notion of a national rollout plan for fiber internet to parallel the rollout of electricity and phone services in the 20th Century is just unheard of.  We'd rather leave it to private industry, we say, as if private industry will ever see significant money to be made stringing fiber-optic cable to little towns like Glasgow Virginia.

"It's expensive and we've gotten along fine without it so far" is the response I usually get when I bring this up to folks in small towns like the one I grew up in.  Of course, that town is served by two separate interstates.  Sometimes you don't know what you've got until it's gone.

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