Saturday, August 20, 2005

Does Your Cat Have a Cell Phone Yet?

In the May/June 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs ("Down to the Wire," p. 111), Thomas Bleha complained that the U.S. is falling behind in broadband and cell phone services:

In 2001, Japan was well behind the United States in the broadband race... By May 2003, a higher percentage of homes in Japan than in the United States had broadband.... Today, nearly all Japanese have access to "high-speed" broadband, with an average connection speed 16 times faster than in the United States--for only about $22 a month. Even faster "ultra-high-speed" broadband, which runs through fiber-optic cable, is scheduled to be available throughout the country for $30 to $40 a month by the end of 2005...

The government used tax breaks, debt guarantees, and partial subsidies. It allowed companies willing to lay fiber to depreciate about one-third of the cost on first-year taxes, and it guaranteed their debt liabilities. These measures were sufficient to ensure that new fiber was laid in cities and large towns, but in rural areas, municipal subsidies were also needed... covering approximately one-third of their costs...

That's nice, they have faster internet and paid for it. But why should we do the same thing?

The demand for more speed will never end as long as people are taught to be addicted to their computers and websites are continually bloated with unnecessary bells and whistles. I recently got an email from my mother asking me where her local Boy Scout office was because her internet searches kept coming up with irrelevant results. I found the answer myself online, but politely suggested that she might try the actual phone book next time.

The question is how much speed an access is actually needed? Bleha cites telecommuting and teleconferencing as benefits of increased broadband, but what's the problem now? It takes 3 seconds to email a file instead of 1? The only problem I ever had with my (less speedy than cable) DSL service was when I tried to watch C-SPAN on my computer - until I realized that the problem was actually with Windows Media Player and RealPlayer worked just fine.
The United States is even further behind Japan in wireless, mobile-phone-based Internet access... the cellular infrastructure is so spotty that even in large cities calls from an ordinary wireless phone may not go through. Sadly, U.S. mobile-phone competition is still based on price and the extent of a company's coverage rather than the kind of advanced data services available in Japan and elsewhere.
Sadly? How necessary are these data services? My phone does all kinds of things that I never use because they are simply unnecessary. Besides, using all of these applications on tiny phone screens may do little more than promise a world of more car accidents, eye strain, and no chance for relaxation.

I was at a grocery store this afternoon and a lady's cell phone rang. She answered it and kept yelling into it that she couldn't hear because there was almost no signal. She repeated this several times and before the conversation presumably ended. Then the phone rang again, she answered again, and went through the same performance again. I stood there mumbling to myself "well then why did you answer it again?" I've seen people blocking the aisles at Costco reading their email. The DC Metro put up signs asking people to keep their phone conversations to themselves, but with little effect. The only source of peace is that many cell phones don't work in the subway tunnels. This is so great for "quality of life" that it should be federally subsidized too?

In advocating significantly increased federal involvement in broadband and wireless networks, he says:
To reach everyone, the effort would require developing a combination of technologies: wireline, wireless, and satellite. The United States' vastness no doubt complicates the task, but it is no excuse for not undertaking the job. (Canada, the world's second-largest state, also ranks second in global broadband connectivity.)
Citing Canada as a large state is extraordinarily deceptive. While Canada is geographically the world's second-largest state, it has a population of a mere 32 million, 90% of whom live in the tiny corridor within 100 miles of the U.S. border:

Most of those 90% live adjacent to the Northeast. Japan, on the other hand, is ten times as densely populated as the U.S. I also wouldn't be surprised if the development in Canada has been driven by the burdens of international trade.

Bleha also repeatedly asserts that this technology is necessary for an "improved quality of life," but doesn't give a real basis for this. Yet he demands that the Bush administration do the marketing for him. He's quite concerned about losing the broadband "race" - but where is the destination and what does the winner get? Those are questions that should be answered with specificity, not vague assertions about the "quality of life." I have had a cell phone for a year now, and I haven't needed any feature that wasn't available on cell phones a decade ago. I (sadly, according to Bleha) really only care about price and coverage (especially free nationwide roaming.)

Some broadband is necessary for multitasking and cell phones are convenient for their mobility, but where's the crisis?

Update, Oct. 5: Canada Lags U.S. in Wireless:

Here's another kick in the national pride for anyone under the illusion Canada is the world leader in telecommunications it likes to think it is...

Statistics Canada reported Tuesday that at the end of March there were 47 wireless subscribers for every 100 people in this country, a level reached in the United States in mid-2002. In fact, the most recent U.S. figure available indicates that at the end of last year, there were 61.7 wireless subscribers for every 100 people...

...Canada ranks just 27th in wireless penetration among the top 30 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development...

The study found that the average wireless customer in Canada pays a startling 60 per cent more than they would under a U.S. plan, and a 19-per-cent premium over customers of European carriers.

There are several reasons for the difference between U.S. and Canadian wireless prices... there are six or seven national players in the U.S. market so competition is fiercer than in Canada, which has only three. And U.S. competition has intensified in recent years with the spread of number portability...

Bleha didn't like U.S. services being driven by price, but it turns out that high prices caused by a lack of competition are exactly what's holding back Canada.

No comments: