By David L. Cohen
This week, the U.S. Conference of Mayors convenes its "Innovation Summit" here in Philadelphia, including a focus on broadband, the Internet, and all they enable.
There's no better location for this summit. After all, Philadelphia was home to Benjamin Franklin, America's first great innovator. Franklin founded our nation's first public hospital, first public library, Philadelphia's Fire Department, and the University of Pennsylvania. He conducted the world's first grand experiments with electricity. If Franklin were with us today, he probably would have invented Google or Facebook - or even the Internet itself.
While those involved in building a bigger and faster broadband pipe have their fair share of detractors (as Franklin did), the reality is that U.S. broadband now reaches more Americans at faster speeds than ever before. By nearly every measure, we are a world leader.
Today, 94 percent of Americans have access to wired high-speed Internet service (the highest percentage in the world) and 90 percent have a choice of fixed and mobile broadband competitors. Eighty-two percent of U.S. homes have access to speeds in excess of 100 megabits per second (mbps), while in Europe, only 2 percent of the population has access to these speeds, leaving technologists and policy makers there with a mere aspirational goal to extend 100 mbps speeds by 50 percent by 2020. No wonder Neelie Kroes, a senior European Internet policymaker, declared that Europe "needs to catch up," citing the United States as a model.
America is first in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in broadband subscribers and users, third in wired competition options, and sixth in access to 10 mbps connectivity.
Top residential broadband speeds in the United States have increased 19-fold in the last six years, and America is among the leaders in affordability for entry-level service tiers. Notwithstanding all these speed increases, consumer prices have remained relatively stable. U.S. consumers pay 87 percent less per mbps today than they did 11 years ago.
More than $1.2 trillion in private-sector investment since 1996 has built a broadband network capacity that is simply unmatched in scope, speed, and reach. Former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski has argued that the United States is "near the top of the world" in the deployment of high-speed broadband infrastructure.
The massive private investment has produced more than two million jobs, including 102,000 jobs in Pennsylvania since 1996. It enabled America's innovation leadership in the international broadband economy. Global leaders like Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Pandora, and hundreds of others got their start thanks to the trillion-plus-dollar investment by broadband providers that has crisscrossed this nation with robust and truly ubiquitous broadband connectivity.
Broadband is increasingly mobile - 4G LTE wireless service can now reach 9 of 10 Americans at speeds as high as 20 mbps, and cable companies provide world-leading WiFi access. Thanks to a partnership with other cable companies that together have placed more than 150,000 WiFi access points around the country, customers have super-high wireless broadband speeds available outside and inside the home. When wireless telephone networks locked up after Hurricane Sandy and the Boston Marathon bombing, Comcast opened its network, allowing anyone in the affected areas - including non-Comcast subscribers - to communicate over WiFi-enabled devices.
For some, the discussion about the broadband Internet seems to begin and end on the issue of "gigabit" access. To be sure, a one-gig connection has value, especially for those who have invested in "inside" networks and equipment to handle that 1-gigabit firehose of data.
The issue with such speed is really more about demand than supply. Our business customers can already order 10-gig connections. Most websites can't deliver content as fast as current networks move, and most U.S. homes have routers that can't support the speed already available to the home. As consumer demand grows for faster speeds, a competitive marketplace of wired and wireless broadband providers will be ready to serve it.
Today there is a cottage industry of critics who always want to tell us that our broadband Internet is not fast enough or satisfactory for one reason or another. The reality is that the United States is leading the way in speed, reach, and access - and doing so in a vast, rural nation that poses logistical connectivity challenges unlike any other country.
The challenge we face now is how best to continue our broadband and Internet leadership.