NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, April 2010
National Broadband Plan – Check Your Connection
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host
(click to email author)

http://www.broadband.gov/plan - Video

When I started writing this column over 10 years ago, I happily plodded along the internet using dial-up internet provided by a now defunct local ISP. The internet debate of the day was whether or not a modem could really run at 56k speeds, or was 33.6k a practical limit? When I purchased my first very expensive 56k modem for my homebuilt Windows 98 computer, I ran a variety of speed tests and was consistently getting speeds in the low 40’s, which was above average for the time. There was talk about faster speeds being publicly available from ISPs, but at the time the only option for home use was to purchase a horribly expensive T-1 line, as household broadband was in its infancy. DSL broadband was starting to become available in major cities, and cable based internet was also being introduced, but not yet readily available locally. As soon as broadband was available in my neighborhood, I signed up for it, only keeping my dialup service long enough to be assured that my broadband was working reliably. Now except for some rural areas, broadband has become almost universally available.

We are doing a lot more online than we did in the past. In the past, email and surfing simple web pages was the primary use of the internet, but now we download large files, view streaming movies, watch TV, and use other bandwidth consuming tasks that would have been impossible with the archaic dialup service of yesterday. Broadband internet is now seen as a necessity rather than a luxury, and students and workers may be lost without it. Countless students are now taking credit college classes online, complete with recorded faculty lectures. Countless workers are now working at home as teleworkers, rather than going into the office. According to Wikipedia, about 2.5 million teleworkers used their homes as their primary work place in 2008, and 17.2 million workers telecommuted occasionally; for these millions of workers, telecommuting would not be practical without broadband internet service. Many people are not aware that their medical records may be transcribed overseas, and that many MRI and CT scans are routinely sent overseas to be read and interpreted by foreign radiologists, a process that would not be viable without broadband internet access. Telemedicine, where a patient is examined or evaluated by a distant healthcare provider utilizing a broadband internet connection is becoming very commonplace. There are many other circumstances where today’s tasks could not be accomplished without widespread broadband internet access.

Recognizing the need for widespread broadband internet access available to all Americans, the federal government has created the “National Broadband Plan” which can be viewed online at http://www.broadband.gov. Six distinct goals have been identified and set for the plan, and include:

* Goal 1: At least 100 million U.S. homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and actual upload speeds of at least 50 megabits per second.
* Goal 2: The United States should lead the world in mobile innovation, with the fastest and most extensive wireless networks of any nation.
* Goal 3: Every American should have affordable access to robust broadband service, and the means and skills to subscribe if they so choose.
* Goal 4: Every community should have affordable access to at least 1 Gbps broadband service to anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals and government buildings.
* Goal 5: To ensure the safety of Americans, every first responder should have access to a nationwide public safety wireless network.
* Goal 6: To ensure that America leads in the clean energy economy, every American should be able to use broadband to track and manage their real-time energy consumption.”

Goal 1 would require substantial infrastructure improvements, as most broadband currently available to the general public is far below the 100mb download/50mb upload speeds. I am currently capable of a home broadband speed with my current provider over 90% less than the stated goal, and the fastest locally available home broadband here in southeast Texas is no where near the stated goal for broadband. Two of my daughters who live in a major Texas city have fiber optic broadband that is state of the art, and still running at a maximum theoretical 35mb upload and download speed, which is still 65% below the goal. Another hindrance is that some of the broadband providers are metering usage, and capping the amount of data that can be accessed in a month, and then charging significant fees if that cap is surpassed.

In addition to the six goals stated above, the National Broadband Plan cites seven diverse areas where enhanced broadband would generate substantial benefits to American society:

Economic Opportunity - Broadband enables American businesses, workers and communities to think big and grow bigger. By investing in broadband, we’ll introduce markets to new opportunities and customers to new products.
Education - Broadband investment will help America lead the world in educational innovation by supporting 21st century teaching and learning both in the classroom and outside of it.
Health Care - Broadband and health IT will transform health care in America, creating better outcomes and lowering costs.
Energy and Environment - Next-generation energy solutions require investment in broadband to modernize electric power grid, unleash energy innovation in homes, and enable more efficient transportation in the future.
Government Performance - From city hall to the U.S. Capitol, government can better serve the American people by relying more on broadband.
Civic Engagement - Broadband can increase public access to government information and provide new ways for citizens to participate in their democracy and community.
Public Safety - With a nationwide public safety broadband wireless network, first responders will be able to send and receive video and data in moments, improving their ability to communicate with each other and the public.”

In order to better know what is actually available in each locality, the National Broadband Plan is offering a free broadband speed test at http://www.broadband.gov/qualitytest/about/. This test requires that Java be installed and active in the browser, and takes just a few minutes to complete. A secondary purpose is to indicate to the user his real connection speed, giving him the opportunity to compare what he is really getting compared to what he is paying for. Two different speed services are available (Ookla and M-Lab), one being randomly assigned each time the service is accessed, but the other one can be manually selected. For example, I have run the tests several times, and found that my average download speed was about 20% slower than the service I am paying for. What is worse is that my average upload speed is slightly less than half of my ISP’s advertised speed. Subsequent to running the tests the first few times alternating between the two services, I contacted my ISP who ran a line test, and told me that everything was running fine between their servers and my house. They also informed me that the advertised speeds are “up to” the stated speed.

The government does not just want to know the quality of our broadband connections, but they also want to know where there are “broadband dead zones” where broadband is not readily available. If you live or work in an area where broadband is either unavailable or inadequately available, then they request that you fill out the form at http://www.broadband.gov/Broadband-Dead-Zone-Report.pdf. Since people who lack internet access may not be able to access the form to report dead zones, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) will accept phone reports at 1-888-CALL-FCC.

I would be lost without my broadband internet access. It would be great if all of us had very fast and affordable broadband internet. The economic and social benefits may be substantial.

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