No time to slow down

The other day I was sitting at a coffee shop in Austin with a less than admirable Wi-Fi connection. Load times are SLOW… which means about 30-seconds for each page to load. No doubt this is because there were at least three-dozen people there, stacked toe-to-toe, all glued to laptops. We were all exchanging looks of utter frustration as we waited and waited and waited which provided plenty of time to think, “I hope five people leave so I can get better bandwidth.”

It hit me all of a sudden - how much we have come to depend on access to high-speed Internet, whether on a laptop or mobile phone. We have become so accustomed – okay addicted – to instant connectivity. I personally become frazzled and frustrated if I can’t load my email, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and whatever topic pages I’m interested in (usually ten open at a time.) How could I work (or live) without it?

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The reality of slow downloads is actually not an apocalyptic thought reserved only for high-tech horror movies. The technology that we have come to rely on uses massive amounts of bandwidth. YouTube used more bandwidth in 2012 than the entire Internet used in the year 2000. And it shows no sign of slowing.

Internet usage amongst Americans has soared since 1995 when just 14 percent of people were online. Today that number hovers around 75 to 85 percent. Senior citizens, who in the past were the least likely adopters, have also come to depend on Internet connection. A recent survey reported that “more than half of senior citizens who use broadband (56%) would find it “very hard” to give up the Internet.” Respondents noted that they valued being online as a way to engage with others, specifically “communicating with family and friends.” In fact, a Nielsen study released in 2014 found that more than half of all adults over the age of 55 own smartphones.

In today’s online world where speed is king, slow connection is almost synonymous with no connection.  Hence the dedicated push is to get reliable, fast connectivity to all Americans, regardless of where they live, work or play. The federal government has invested almost $3 billion in more than 220 projects, improving 90,000 miles of broadband infrastructure, making high-speed connections available to 14,000 community institutions. These funds go toward laying new fiber-optic cable, creating public computer centers and digital literacy programs for vulnerable populations. The goal is to make sure everyone can participate in the digital economy.

Also critically important is encouraging the private sector to continue to invest in this infrastructure, who together have invested more than $260 billion in today’s modern mobile broadband networks and infrastructure.  In Austin, private sector companies like Google, AT&T, Time Warner Cable and Grande are all rushing to be the first to provide 1 Gig speed to consumers across the city. Recently, AT&T announced that it was considering 1 Gig fiber for more than 100 cities nationwide, if the right investment policies are in place.

This is a big deal and positions America to take part in the digital economy in an entirely new way and compete at a much higher global scale. Between 2009-2012 annual investment in the US network grew more than 40 percent. In 2013 that number climbed even higher as the two major providers announced the commitment of more than $30 billion to America’s economy, easily exceeding investment by the major oil and gas or auto companies.  This week’s announcement is good for all of us – from major tech employers, to innovative entrepreneurs, to consumers crouched in coffee shops.

The government can encourage private sector investment simply by ensuring that regulations don’t get passed, or are removed altogether, which hamper development and investment. It’s in our economy’s best interest that we have “fat pipes” and lots of bandwidth to enable the endless number of innovations that tech entrepreneurs are creating for those that chose to connect.

McCullough is executive director of Texans for Economic Progress.