Internet in the United States
The Internet in the United States grew out of the ARPANET, a network sponsored by the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense during the 1960s. The Internet in the United States in turn provided the foundation for the world-wide Internet of today.
Internet access in the United States is largely provided by the private sector and is available in a variety of forms, using a variety of technologies, at a wide range of speeds and costs. By 2004, three quarters of Americans had Internet access at home.
Access to the Internet can be divided into dial-up and broadband access. Around the start of the 21st century, most residential access was by dial-up, while access from businesses was usually by higher speed connections. In subsequent years dial-up declined in favor of broadband access. Both types of access generally use a modem, which converts digital data to analog for transmission over a particular analog network (ex. the telephone or cable networks).
Dial-up access is connection to the Internet through a phone line, creating a semi-permanent link to the Internet. Operating on a single channel, it monopolizes the phone line and is the slowest method of accessing the Internet. Dial-up is often the only form of Internet access available in rural areas because it requires no infrastructure other than the already existing telephone network. Dial-up connections typically do not exceed a speed of 56 kbit/s, because they are primarily made via a 56k modem.
Broadband access includes a wide range of speeds and technologies, all of which provide much faster access to the Internet than dial-up. The term "broadband" once had a technical meaning, but today it is more often a marketing buzzword that simply means "faster". Broadband connections are continuous or "always on" connections, without the need to dial and hangup, and do not monopolize phone lines. Common types of broadband access include DSL (Digital Subscriber Lines), cable modems, and mobile broadband via cell phones and other mobile devices, among many others. In 2008, the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defined broadband as any connection above 768 kbit/s.
Leading broadband companies in the United States
The leading broadband provider in the United States is SBC Communications (AT&T) with 14.8 million subscribers as of the third quarter of 2008. SBC is followed by Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon. And while there are many cable companies offering broadband services in the United States, three are seen as the main providers: Comcast, Time Warner, and Cox Communications.
Internet use and speed
The United States has over 67.7 million people subscribed to the top broadband providers, which account for 94% of the market. In 2008, over 5.4 million high speed Internet subscribers were added, compared to 8.5 million in 2007. The market’s peak subscriber additions were acquired in 2006 with 10.4 million; the slowed growth can be attributed to increased market penetration, according to the Leichtman Research Group (LRG) that has been tracking the broadband industry. In March 2009, broadband penetration in active Internet user US homes dropped to 93.13%, creating the second consistent decrease from its peak of 93.38% in January 2009.
In 2008, the United States ranked 15th out of 30 countries in broadband penetration rates, behind most other developed nations, including the UK, Germany, France, Denmark (#1), Switzerland, and Canada.
In measurements made between January and June 2011, the United States ranked 26th globally in terms of the speed of its broadband Internet connections, with an average measured speed of 4.93 Mbit/s. South Korea led the list with an average of 17.62 Mbit/s, followed by Romania (15.27 Mbit/s) and Bulgaria (12.89 Mbit/s).
These rankings partly fuel the debate around the need for a national broadband policy, which would strive to provide high speed broadband internet access to all citizens.
With the advent of the World Wide Web, the commercialization of the Internet, and its spread beyond use within the government and the research and education communities in the 1990s, Internet access became an important public policy and political issue.
National Information Infrastructure
The High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991 (HPCA), Pub.L. 102–194, built on prior U.S. efforts toward developing a national networking infrastructure, starting with the ARPANET in the 1960s and the funding of the National Science Foundation Network (NSFnet) in the 1980s. It led to the development of the National Information Infrastructure and included funding for a series of projects under the titles National Research and Education Network (NREN) and High-Performance Computing and Communications Initiative which spurred many significant technological developments, such as the Mosaic web browser, and the creation of a high-speed fiber optic computer network. The HPCA provided the framework for the transition of the Internet from a largely government sponsored network to the commercial Internet that followed.
Universal Service Fund
Universal service is a program dating back to early in the 20th century with a goal to encourage/require the interconnection of telephone networks operated by different providers. Over time this grew into the more general goal of providing telephone service to everyone in the United States at a reasonable price. When Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 it provided for the creation of a Universal Service Fund to help meet the challenges and opportunities of the digital information age. The Universal Service Fund (USF) was established in 1997 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to implement the goals of the Telecommunications Act.
The Telecommunications Act requires all telecommunications companies to make equitable and non-discriminatory contributions to the USF. Under the supervision of the FCC, the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), is responsible for allocating money from the central fund to four programs: High Cost, Low Income, Rural Health Care, and Schools and Libraries (E-rate). These programs are designed to:
1. promote the availability of quality services at just, reasonable, and affordable rates;
2. increase access to advanced telecommunications services throughout the Nation;4. increase access to telecommunications and advanced services in schools, libraries and rural health care facilities.
3. advance the availability of such services to all consumers, including those in low income, rural, insular, and high cost areas at rates that are reasonably comparable to those charged in urban areas; and—Purpose of fund, USF Official Website
Telecommunications companies may, but are not required to, charge their customers a fee to recover the costs of contributing to the Universal Service fund. Consumers may see this reflected in a line-item charge labeled “Universal Service" on telecommunications bills. The amount of this charge, if any, and the method used to collect the fee from consumers is determined by the companies and is not mandated by the FCC.
More formally known as the Schools and Libraries Program, the E-Rate is funded from the Universal Service Fund. The E-Rate provides discounts to K-12 schools and libraries in the United States to reduce the cost of installing and maintaining telecommunications services, Internet access, and internal connections. The discounts available range from 20% to 90% depending on the poverty level and urban/rural status of the communities where the schools and libraries are located.
There has been a good deal of controversy surrounding the E-Rate, including legal challenges from states and telecommunications companies. The impact of the program is hard to measure, but at the beginning of 2005 over 100,000 schools had participated in the program. Annual requests for discounts are roughly three times the $2.25 billion that is available, so while all eligible schools and libraries receive some discounts, some do not receive all of the discounts to which they are entitled under the rules of the program.
In 1998 the federal Internet Tax Freedom Act halted the expansion of direct taxation of the Internet that had begun in several states in the mid-1990s. The law, however, did not affect sales taxes applied to online purchases which continue to be taxed at varying rates depending on the jurisdiction, in the same way that phone and mail orders are taxed.
The absence of direct taxation of the Internet does not mean that all transactions taking place online are free of tax, or even that the Internet is free of all tax. In fact, nearly all online transactions are subject to one form of tax or another. The Internet Tax Freedom Act merely prevents states from imposing their sales tax, or any other kind of gross receipts tax, on certain online services. For example, a state may impose an income or franchise tax on the net income earned by the provider of online services, while the same state would be precluded from imposing its sales tax on the gross receipts of that provider.
National Broadband Policy
Internet access has become a vital tool in development and social progress since the start of the 21st century. As a result, Internet penetration and, more specifically, broadband Internet penetration rates are now treated as key economic indicators. The term "broadband penetration" refers to the percentage of the Internet access market that high speed has captured in a single country. The United States is widely perceived as falling behind in both its rate of broadband Internet penetration and the speed of its broadband infrastructure.
For all of these reasons, there have been calls for the U.S. to develop, adopt, fund, and implement a National Broadband Plan. The difficulty of successfully designating and distributing government funds in order to increase Internet access (particularly via broadband) are central limiting factors in the development of such a policy, but proponents believe that establishing a national plan is necessary for social and economic progress. Those demanding a national broadband policy argue that such a policy is the best method by which the United States could achieve “universal availability and adoption of truly high-speed access.
Meeting important public needs
In the 21st century, Internet access is recognized as a basic utility similar to telephones, water, and electricity. Most agree Internet access is needed in order to fully participate in society. For example, in the 2008 presidential elections, candidates delivered weekly addresses through videos on the Internet. These videos were often not available anywhere else. Proponents of national broadband policy argue that situations like the 2008 presidential elections illustrate that broadband internet access is a vital commodity for complete civic engagement.
Broadband can provide entertainment in ways that television and radio cannot. Webisodes, mini-episodes that are not usually aired on cable television, are an example of this extension of traditional television. For example, Bravo (US TV Network) has given users the opportunity to view “Top Chef” on their personal computers. An entertainment advantage of these Webisodes is the idea that the users are able to view the behind the scenes footage that occur after the contestants are kicked off the show. This kind of extension of entertainment marks a change in the way we utilize internet access, and a hybridization of media.
Supporters of national broadband policy also argue that Internet access allows consumers to contribute to economic growth and innovation. Many services have moved business onto the Internet, a shift that is manifested through tools such as online banking, account referencing for utilities, and online library databases.
Those in favor of a national broadband policy also claim that many educational resources, including online classes and interactive learning simulations can only be found on the web. They believe that Internet access for all is necessary to create a truly American environment of equal opportunity.
Proponents of national broadband policy argue that online library databases, textbooks, and encyclopedias, have made the Internet a premier tool for education and lifelong learning. They maintain that the availability of broadband for all would provide a number of other highly valuable public benefits.
Some in favor of a national broadband policy argue it will provide the infrastructure necessary to bring broadband to rural areas of the United States. Many inhabitants of rural areas who are willing to pay for broadband service cannot get it. Low population density causes high costs and low profits and prevents most providers from doing business in the rural United States.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as the Stimulus Bill of 2009, provides $2.5 billion in the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) for expanding rural broadband services. The RUS already helps to provide other utilities to rural areas of the U.S. through public-private partnerships. The money from the 2009 bill will be used to lay more fiber optic cables and hire more network specialists, engineers, and broadband company workers.
Proponents of national broadband policy believe that it would have a positive effect on the urban poor and provide them with many more opportunities for Internet access. In impoverished urban areas, many people are unable to afford the payments to bring broadband services into their homes. In 2008, roughly 50% of the United States population made an annual income of $50,000 or less. Of that half of the population, only 35% of the population could afford cost of monthly payments for broadband services. Some telecommunications companies have made a small effort to provide more affordable broadband rates for the 15% of the population that could not afford broadband before. However, non-profits like One Economy are the current primary source of funding used to provide low-income families with broadband access.
Other possible advantages
- More citizens could research hospitals and physicians prior to traveling so as to receive better medical care (a benefit particularly important for those who live in rural areas and travel long distances for medical treatment).
- More citizens could research jobs and investments, providing more opportunities for economic stability.
- More citizens could work from home, which accommodates personal or health needs, as well as reduces the use of travel-related resources usually used for commuting.
- More citizens could educate themselves on political issues, news, and other important civic issues, using the Internet to become more informed and/or more active.
- If all citizens had Internet access, the government would have a more efficient tool to communicate and interact with its citizens quickly and effectively, particularly in terms of processes currently executed on paper. Broadband could also help the government provide aid efficiently, particularly in areas affected by disasters.
Allegedly, those against a national broadband policy are not as outspoken as those in favor of one. The allocation of funds to broadband development included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was, however, met with voiced disapproval and questioning by opponents of such a national broadband policy.
Inefficiencies, stifled innovation and competition
Those against a national broadband policy argue that allowing the government to regulate and manage broadband development will cause efficiency and progress to wane, due to lack of competition. They also maintain that government involvement will inevitably result in profit losses for companies and businesses.
Government waste and lack of attention to real user needs
Opponents of national broadband policy warn that in an attempt to achieve the desired goal of broadband for all, the government will waste billions of dollars on an infrastructure that people do not need or cannot use. They believe the money will be ill-spent because the government will not give attention to customer needs and desires with the same specificity exercised by the corporate sector.
Negative effect on the economy
Furthermore, those who do not advocate a national broadband policy claim that increases in broadband coverage could have an unexpected negative effect on the United States economy. They believe that many service sector jobs currently based in the United States could be moved offshore and fulfilled by lower-wage foreign workers. Opponents thus suggest that the relationship between economic growth and broadband penetration is questionable, emphasizing the notion that statistics are often misleading. They do not believe that such statistics are an adequate indicator that a national broadband policy is needed in the United States.
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009
The 2009 Stimulus Bill, as it is commonly termed, was enacted by the 111th United States Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama on February 17, 2009. This bill provides money to create the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration within the Department of Commerce.
- $4.7 billion to bring broadband to un-served and under served areas and to facilitate broadband use and adoption.
- $2.5 billion to the Federal Communications Commission to facilitate the development of a national broadband plan with one year.
The strong protections for freedom of speech and expression against federal, state, and local government censorship are rooted in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. These protections extend to the Internet and as a result very little government mandated technical filtering occurs in the U.S. Nevertheless, the Internet in the United States is highly regulated, supported by a complex set of legally binding and privately mediated mechanisms.
After a decade and half of ongoing contentious debate over content regulation, the country is still very far from reaching political consensus on the acceptable limits of free speech and the best means of protecting minors and policing illegal activity on the Internet. Gambling, cyber security, and dangers to children who frequent social networking sites—real and perceived—are important ongoing debates. Significant public resistance to proposed content restriction policies have prevented the more extreme measures used in some other countries from taking hold in the U.S.
Public dialogue, legislative debate, and judicial review have produced filtering strategies in the United States that are different from those found in most of the rest of the world. Many government-mandated attempts to regulate content have been barred on First Amendment grounds, often after lengthy legal battles. However, the government has been able to exert pressure indirectly where it cannot directly censor. With the exception of child pornography, content restrictions tend to rely more on the removal of content than blocking; most often these controls rely upon the involvement of private parties, backed by state encouragement or the threat of legal action. In contrast to much of the rest of the world, where ISPs are subject to state mandates, most content regulation in the United States occurs at the private or voluntary level.
- Broadband mapping in the United States
- Communications in the United States
- National broadband plans from around the world
- Municipal broadband
- Nielsen report 3/4 of Americans have Internet
- How Broadband Works 2008-08-20. Retrieved on 2009-01-19.
- Statement of Chairman Kevin J. Martin Retrieved on 2009-03-04.
- FCC redefines "broadband" to mean 768 kbit/s 2008-03-19. Retrieved 2009-03-04.
- Goldman, A. December 2, 2008."Top 23 U.S. ISPs by Subscriber: Q3 2008", ISP Planet, September 2008
- The Last Mile Online
- Leichtman Research Group Press Release Retrieved on 2009-05-28.
- Mohney, D U.S. broadband adoption slows (again) in 2008; now more than 67M subs Retrieved on 2009-05-28
- 24-7 Press Release, Website Optimization Retrieved on 2009-05-28.
- Directorate for Science, Technology, and Industry. OECD Broadband Portal. Retrieved on 2009-05-28.
- "America: Land of the Slow", Verne G. Kopytoff, New York Times: Bits, 20 September 2011
- NCSA Mosaic – September 10, 1993 Demo
- Information Superhighway Envisioned-Legislation Pending to Establish National Computer Network
- Purpose of the Universal Service Fund Retrieved on 2009-03-05
- Internet Tax Freedom Act, 47 U.S.C. § 151 (1998).
- What is Broadband Penetration? Retrieved on 2009-03-05.
- Bringing Broadband to the Urban Poor BusinessWeek, p.1. 2008-12-31. Retrieved on 2009-01-19.
- West, S. November 25, 2008. Top Chef Webisodes Premiere This Week
- The Case for a National Broadband Policy 2007-06. Retrieved on 2009-03-02.
- Bringing Broadband to the Urban Poor BusinessWeek, p.2. 2008-12-21. Retrieved on 2009-01-19.
- Municipal Broadband: A Background Briefing Paper Broadband for All. 2006-09. Retrieved on 2009-02-19.
- Bringing Broadband to Rural America BusinessWeek. 2008-09-18. Retrieved on 2009-03-04.
- Coming: $7.2B for broadband, Internet access WashingtonTechnology. 2009-02-23. Retrieved on 2009-02-24.
- National Policy Would Be Bad for Broadband 2007-04-02. Retrieved on 2009-02-15.
- "FCC Launches Development of National Broadband Plan", FCC News, Federal Communications Commission, 8 April 2009, retrieved 29 May 2009.
- "National Broadband Plan", Broadband.gov, accessed 21 September 2011
- "ONI Regional Overview: North America", OpenNet Initiative, 30 March 2010
- "Cybersieves", Derek E. Bambauer, Duke Law Journal, vol. 59 (2009)
- "The Move to the Middle: The Enduring Threat of 'Harmful' Speech to the End-to-End Principle", John Palfrey, Jr. and Robert Rogoyski, Washington University Journal of Law and Policy, vol. 21 (2006), pp.31–65
- DSL Reports - Extensive site on broadband with user reports from around the USA and Canada