The above clip from Iron Man 3 is the result of Tony Stark deciding he needs to find a heavy duty com sat link. Notice that the speed calculation is hovering around 8.8-9.2, with Mr. Stark saying, "well that ain't gonna cut it". We're finding ourselves sitting in the same position as Mr. Stark--albeit without awesome tech suit; we need more speed and reliability than what's currently being offered to us.
The reality is that you need consistent speed to work, to be efficient, and to complete your tasks at hand.
DSL and cable are technically both limited by physics as to how much information they can pipe through at a given rate; both use the medium of electricity transferred over metal (copper in the case of DSL, and aluminum for cable) to transmit data. DSL packages start at a whopping 1-3Mbps and top out around 7 Mbps for "high end" packages. Cable offerings aren't much better as they start much higher than DSL but only offer 10-20Mbps.
Using Mr. Stark's speed test as a starting point, let's look at WNY and see where there is internet availability of at least 9-10Mbps download. You'll notice that the green overlay means that pretty much all parts of WNY have that available. So that's a good start, right?
Now what does it look like when we take out the cable offering? You begin to see significant areas that are not served:
Earlier this year the Federal Communications Commission, voted in a 3-2 ruling that broadband should be re-classified as a utility as common carriers under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. Like electricity, water and gas, broadband does comes with a cost. With the initial availability of speeds established for the WNY area, who provides these services?--and at what cost? Currently the two providers of broadband for residents are Verizon and Time Warner.
But here's the thing about broadband--earlier this year, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) redefined the term "broadband" to mean data transmission speeds of at least 25 Mbps downstream (from the Internet to the user's computer) and 3 Mbps upstream (from the user's computer to the Internet). So that means that, at best, only Time Warner's better offerings constitute broadband. And Verizon's packages become obsolete as they don't meet the definition of "broadband". Furthermore, Time Warner's packages that meet the speeds are only valid if we take the speeds they're claiming at face value. In other words: the speeds themselves are the theoretical maximum, not real-world delivery.
Now let's take a look at the pricing for what mediocre speeds we can get in the City of Buffalo.
Verizon's current service offerings for those within the City are outlined below. The highest/most expensive plan provides speeds of 7.1-15 Mbps (well below the FCC's definition of broadband):
Time Warner isn't much better, as their pricing structure is pretty similar. The only major difference is that their base starting rate gives you much better value for your money. However, what kind of value are you getting if the service doesn't let you actually do what it's intended for?
These price levels are paltry at best and given other similar markets the service offerings clearly are not competitive.
To analyze this a little further, let's look at the breakdown of our region. Buffalo is one of the nations poorest cities with a population of 250,000 or more. We can see that nearly 90% of the region has an income disparity that falls in line very close to the poverty level:
The percentage of households in the Buffalo area with incomes below the poverty level is staggering. At $40 minimum to $200/month, what household can afford 5-10% of their income on internet service that isn't even considered high speed. When you factor in population density, you see that a huge portion of the population is within the $20,000.00/year per household area:
So yes, internet access is available. But why isn't consistent, affordable access available throughout the region?
As soon as we go to the next tier of speed offerings, being >50Mbps download and >10Mpbs upload, the availability plummets. You can see only accessible to those in more affluent areas where there is less population density leaving many with no choice but to select from sub-par service.
This is also an interesting map to look at when we consider the racial make-up of our region (which wasn't available as a layer on these maps). As you can clearly see below, the areas served are the predominantly white regions of Erie County. Whereas the areas where there's more people of color are left on the other side of the so-called digital divide, along with the Eastern suburbs and rural regions:
If internet access is considered a utility as we consider heat and electric, why do the telecoms get to segregate service? Entire regions not just cities of Erie County and WNY do not even have access to "high-speed", but "basic" (which as explained above isn't necessarily basic), appears to be enough. By segregating service, the telecoms are creating more than just a digital divide: they are creating an unsustainable long-term economic trajectory.
Electricity flows at the same rate; just because you live closer to a power plant or have more money doesn't mean that you get your electricity any faster than someone five miles away, or making $200,000.00 less. Information has been a crux in human progress every step of the way, from the telegraph to the telephone. We now communicate more on the internet, mail has dropped, commerce has skyrocketed.
When we factor in population density and income levels, it looks like this:
So the question at the end of the day is this--why are we paying for services that don't even reach the advertised speeds, when other areas of the country are getting more reliable, faster internet ( some even being 10-100 times faster) for the same price... if not cheaper.
The internet is no longer just a luxury. It is a necessity for everyone: from students, to parents, seniors, people who work from home, and small businesses competing in the digital age. How is Buffalo supposed to continue building on its success downtown when you tell companies that the internet here is overpriced and sub-par? How many people want to watch NetFlix only to wait after 5 minutes for the spinning wheel to get to 100 another 2 minutes later?
If we look at other regions of the country, we see that they're basically working with a different paradigm in terms of speed; areas like Chattanooga and Lafayette are orders of magnitude apart from where we're at in WNY. It really comes down to folks in our region understanding this, gaining a sense of perspective and of what is actually possible.
However, when it comes to availability, we're still finding that the digital divide is oftentimes expanding. Many of the areas where we're seeing truly high speed internet being expanded are in the more privileged--and frankly whiter--parts of the country; the working poor, people of color, and other groups without the money and influence aren't gaining access. What we see in Erie County with fiber service (via Verizon FiOS) in the more affluent, whiter areas, is really just a microcosm for what's happening now, and has happened in the past, in the entire country.
So if we want speed, and universal access, what it comes down to us Western New Yorkers, as a region, deciding that we want it, and demanding that it happen. Because it is possible. And beyond that, it's easy... and we know how to do it.