Why America's Internet Is So Shitty And Slow

Why America's Internet Is So Shitty and Slow

You may have heard that the internet is winning: net neutrality was saved, broadband was redefined to encourage higher speeds, and the dreaded Comcast-Time Warner Cable megamerger potentially thwarted. But the harsh reality is that America's internet is still fundamentally broken, and there's no easy fix.

An Economy Built on Wires

When I say "fundamentally broken" I don't just mean that it's slow and shitty, though there is that. It's also broken as a paid service.

The internet is a tangible thing, a network of infrastructure pulsing with light, winding its way into and beneath buildings. It's also a marketplace. There is the physical location where the fibre-optic cables full of data cross, and then there are the financial deals that direct the traffic down each specific set of wires. This combination of physical wires and ephemeral business transactions will shape the future of the digital world.

In order to comprehend just how broken internet service is, you first have to understand how the physical infrastructure of the internet works. Former Gizmodo contributor Andrew Blum described the underlying infrastructure wonderfully his book about the physical heart of the internet, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet:

In the basest terms, the internet is made of pulses of light. Those pulses might seem miraculous, but they're not magic. They are produced by powerful lasers contained in steel boxes housed (predominantly) in unmarked buildings. The lasers exist. The boxes exist. The internet exists…

There's also wireless data of course, but even those signals need physical towers to send and receive them.

Those pulses of lights -- which are packets of data -- travel through the internet's wires, taking wrong turns, finding faster routes, and eventually reaching their destinations. But each of those routes is owned and maintained by somebody. If you think of the wires as roads, the setup is something like city streets, state highways, and interstates. In internet terms, those different kinds of roads are called tiers, and there are many network tiers stacked up across the US's continent-spanning network.

Tier 1 is the most powerful as it more or less makes up the backbone of the internet. These are the networks that span the entire globe, sending data under the ocean to far-flung places, the ones that never need to connect to another network to deliver a packet of content. There are only a handful of such networks, run by global corporations like AT&T and Verizon.

The smaller, tier 2 networks connect with each other and with the internet backbone to make it more efficient for those packets of data to reach their destinations. This is the level where a lot of corporate handshake deals to direct traffic take place. And then there's the so-called "last mile." You've probably heard a lot about this idea, and how traffic gets across it.

The last mile is the part of the data's voyage that takes it from local utility poles or underground tubes, into your house, and through the cable that plugs into your computer. It's literally the last stretch of infrastructure that data must traverse on its long journey from the server where it's hosted, to your web browser or email client or whatever. It's the physical infrastructure that connects individual homes to the rest of the network. This is the part of the internet that the new Federal Communications Commission's rules regulate.

The Decaying Last Mile

In the US, the last mile of internet infrastructure is an enormous problem. There are two reasons for this: technical restraints holding back the bandwidth needed to support modern-day internet traffic, and a lack of competition between the major carriers selling internet service to the end user.

Most of America's telecommunications infrastructure relies on outdated technology, and it runs over the same copper cables invented by Alexander Graham Bell over 100 years ago. This copper infrastructure -- made up of "twisted pair" and coaxial cables -- was originally designed to carry telephone and video services. The internet wasn't built to handle streaming video or audio.

When your streaming video reaches that troubled last mile of copper, those packets will slam on their brakes as they transition from fibre optic cables to copper coaxial cables. Copper can only carry so much bandwidth, far less than what the modern internet demands. Only fibre optic cables, thick twists of ultra-thin glass or plastic filaments that allow data to travel at the speed of light, can handle that bandwidth. They're also both easier to maintain and more secure than copper.

As consumers demand more bandwidth for things like streaming HD movies, carriers must augment their networks -- upgrade hardware, lay more fibre, hire more engineers, etc -- to keep traffic moving freely between them. But that costs big money -- like, billions of dollars in some cases. Imagine the cost of swapping out the coaxial cables in every American home with fibre optic cables. It's thousands of dollars per mile according to some government records.

And here's the kicker. The last mile infrastructure is controlled by an oligarchy -- three big cable companies: Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon. You know this well. One in three Americans only have one choice for broadband service; most of the others only have two internet providers to choose from.

Without competition, there's no incentive for internet providers to improve improve infrastructure. These massive telecom companies create a bottleneck in the last mile of service by refusing to upgrade critical infrastructure. And they can charge exorbitant prices for the sub-par service while they're at it.

So your internet is shitty and slow and expensive.

The Network of Bureaucracy

If you want to load a webpage or watch a movie on Netflix, it's not just the last mile of infrastructure that slows down your internet, however. It's also the tier 2 networks, where the weird web of business connections starts tangling things up.

Like last mile infrastructure, there's only a small handful of companies controlling much of the backbone of the internet. Including, once again, telecom giants AT&T and Verizon. AT&T and Verizon not only control tier 1 network, they're also the big players on tier 2, which gives them a huge amount of bargaining power, and a huge amount of bureaucratic control over your slow and shitty internet.

The other carriers that operate tier 2 networks are companies you probably haven't heard of -- Cogent, Level3, and Zayo are a few -- and they're integral to the internet's success as a global network. These are the networks that manage the crossroads of the internet, making deals that dictate how traffic travels between networks.

Why America's Internet Is So Shitty and Slow

A rough sketch of how the internet works. On the left, you have end users -- homes and business. On the right, you have the networks making the deals that dictate how internet traffic flows around the globe. Note how content providers (Netflix, YouTube) peer directly with carriers.

Regardless of the physical infrastructure, data can only travel as fast as its predetermined route allows. If tier 2 networks don't strike the right agreements with other networks, that could mean that your data will take a longer route to its destination.

Broadly speaking, a tier 1 network can reach every part of the internet without paying for transit on another network; these are the internet's biggest power brokers. But each of the lesser-known tier 2 middleman carriers must depend on other networks to provide their customers with access to all of the content on the internet.

So picture a map of the internet. If every single network agreed to let other networks use its infrastructure data would flow freely between all points. Unfortunately, not all of the tier 2 networks cooperate.

Why America's Internet Is So Shitty and Slow

An illustration of first and second tier networks, a sprawling 180,000 miles of fibre. The yellow lines are wholly owned and operated by top tier carriers, and the orange ones are shared with other carriers.

To keep traffic moving between networks, the carriers have to make interconnect agreements. One type is called a peering agreement, where two carriers exchange traffic freely for mutual benefit. The other is a transit agreement, exchanging traffic for a fee. The economics of these agreements are quite complex -- here's a great explainer -- but suffice it to say the larger the network, the fewer transit agreements it must pay for.

Tier 2 carriers also forge peering and transit agreements with content providers like Google, Amazon, and Netflix to provide more direct routes to consumers.

This gets complicated because you have a countless number of different networks relying on a limited amount of infrastructure. While fixing the decaying last mile means monopolistic telecom firms shelling out to upgrade copper wires, fibre optic cable is already the industry standard on tier 2 networks -- so your internet speeds are affected more by how well these tier 2 carriers are getting along. When these deals go wrong, carriers end up in locked in negotiations that mean you'll wait longer for webpages to load.

The Fibre Future Relies on Competition

In a climate without sufficient competition, American carriers can refuse to improve infrastructure and augment capacity without the fear of losing customers. Where are they going to go? They can either pay a high price for bad service or pay nothing for no service. This has been the status quo in the USA for years, and companies like Verizon have worked hard to keep this status quo by preventing the FCC from doing its job.

That's also why carriers like Verizon are going straight to content providers like Netflix and asking it to pay for more direct routes to customers. Why would Verizon spend its own money on infrastructure, when it can get a content provider to pick up the tab?

This is where the net neutrality debate comes from. The FCC is finally getting aggressive about protecting the open web, and that's great. But net neutrality is not enough. Improving your slow and shitty internet comes down to increasing competition. We need to build new networks with better last mile technology that will give tier 2 networks an alternative to the big cable cartel.

This is going to require some radical approaches, like the bootstrapped ISPs and experimental municipal broadband networks we're starting to see.

While laying fibre is wildly expensive, startups could take a different tack. A San Francisco local ISP called Monkeybrains is using roof-mounted wireless connections and direct fibre access to data centres to offer high speed wireless internet. It costs about $US2,500 to set up the equipment to join Monkeybrains' innovative network, but after that, you can get "insane speeds" for just $US35 a month.

There's also the option of building a network from the ground up, like the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee did a few years ago. Starting this year, the federal government is funnelling more money towards municipal broadband projects that treat the internet more like a public utility and offer high speeds at low prices. Now it's up to the communities to start up their municipal broadband projects.

President Obama has applauded this path forward, and the FCC is paving the way by tweaking regulations so that help municipal broadband overcome regulations that have traditionally favoured big cable and discouraged competition. Some cracks in the oligarchy are starting to show.

At the end of the day, America's broken internet isn't going to fix itself. Monopolistic problems deserve capitalistic solutions. In this case, it's competition -- pure and simple. The alternative isn't just frustrating. It's dysfunctional.

Pictures: Jim Cooke



    Pfft, Americans have no idea. Come to Australia, we'll show you shitty Internet.

      I get 3mbit/s :D

      144p is the only streaming i do!

        If its youtube use youtube downloader or keepvid.com and download before you get home :)

          Have considered it but I don't wanna have to download everything each time i have an impulse to watch cats moshing to metal.

          Related: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_LQSoMakoIU

            you watch = you download
            may as well download it ahead of time and then you wan watch it.. 144p is not video ists 8 bis super nes

              True, but then I have to store it and i'm just lazy. I've learnt to make do 144p :'(

              i cri evertim

                LOL you only have to store it as long as 24 hours.. more if you really loved it.. no one these days has that little space.

                A small child in africa with a 32 gig usb stick is laughing at you right now..

      I fail to see how my 100mbit connection is shitty! Hassle your local MP to hassle telcos to look into your area. Telcos don't do shit when they dnot' think it's profitable.

      We did get some things right. Imagine if we didn't force Telstra to sell wholesale access to the local loop. Your only choice for ADSL would be Bigpond, or if you moved to a newly developed housing estate, you might be forced to switch internet providers to whoever the developers paid to wire up the estate.

        This is a good point, as it could be a a whole lot worse than it already is here for a lot of areas.

        On another note, it's actually pretty impressive that the US has managed such a fast average internet speed (relative to many other countries, including us) given the anti-competitive nature of the industry. Imagine what they could do if they all just got long! Or conversely, they have demonstrated that they can't play together for the greater good (and still make squillions), which is where more independent regulation comes in.

          I think a lot of it is down to the higher penetration of cable television in the US. Most of the fast broadband in the US (the stuff being complained about in this article) is delivered via HFC cable.

          This would be the equivalent of if Foxtel and Optusvision launched a few decades earlier, actually completed their rollouts (perhaps not covering the same areas), and a large proportion of the population actually subscribed. Then we'd all be using Bigpond Cable, with wireless or dialup if you wanted an alternative provider.

      Nope, nope, nope Talicca...
      I lived in a remote mining community my entire life and whinged about how shit Telstra and broadband was in Australia. Then I moved to the US in 2012.
      I was all keyed up for inexpensive data and options galore and reality gave me a sweet uppercut that has left me reeling ever since.

      Where I had once a variety of options, reliable access to 4GB of Telstra 3G and 18Mbps broadband for ~$200/mth (AUD), I now have unreliable access to 1GB of AT&T 4G LTE and 3Mbps broadband (only one ISP services my area) for ~$195 (USD)... I also HAVE to use a Femto/MicroCell at home to have any mobile service.
      I work for a Fortune 500 company and I also can't make a mobile call from my office.
      It's not like I'm remote either... I'm in Upstate NY about 50mins out of Buffalo.

      Enjoy what you have - the grass is definitely not greener on the other side! More to the point, what is on offer for Australians is damn impressive for a small population on a large land mass.

      Do I sound bitter... yes I am.

    Obviously the title needs to be fixed to:
    Why Australia's Internet is so Shitty and Slow

    Then the rest of the article needs to reflect the title.

    I wish I had monkey brains.

    Last edited 11/03/15 11:14 am

      The article Why Australia's Internet is So Shitty and Slow is written below for you.

      'Because of Tony Abbott'.

        Haha... Australia didn't fall 10 years behind the rest of the world overnight...

          Yeah, it fell even further behind when the NBN was turned into the 'hybrid' mess it is now.

        On a somewhat related note, I saw "Abbott: The Musical!" at the Adelaide Fringe Festival and there was not one joke about this. Very disappointing.

        Started in the Howard era, and now the attempts to improve the situation by Rudd/Gillard are being destroyed by Abbott.

    At least America has more options than cable and ADSL.

      you.... what. you mean like dialup, mobile, satellite, and isdn.. just like we have?

    Awww... poor seppo's... jesus christ cry me a freaking river.

    I had to re-read the title 3 times to make sure I was actually reading "America" and not "Australia"

    Those poor Americans, I really don't know how they cope with such bad internet. Good thing we have such awesome internet here in Australia, I wouldn't want to be in their situation.


    Look at them there, languishing in 11th spot like a nation of n00bs. We're obviously so much more pr0 at rank 30th.

      Hah yeah especially since they ONLY gained 20 positions in a single year, where we just sit chillin at 30th...

    These responses make no sense. Yeah, we have shitty internet in Australia. What does that have to do with America's internet problems and how they can improve? Can we not have articles on America's internet problems until Australia's problems are fixed? Is the world only capable of looking at one problem at a time?

      The reason why the "responses make no sense" appear to be because you're not approaching this from the same point of view that others here have, namely that being that in Australia the majority of commenters here do not care whether or not America's internet speeds are poor.

      By all means though, enjoy the article!

      Last edited 11/03/15 2:14 pm

        People probably should care about the state of the American internet. Most services we use (except the largest that can afford regional servers) have their hardware operating in the United States on US internet services. Residential and commercial capabilities aren't the same but they're interrelated.

        The quality of their internet infrastructure affects our internet experience. It's also why US laws relating to the internet affect everyone, not just them.

          The thing is, America's internet actually isn't that bad. They are ranked 11th in the world in average internet speed.

            People have been mixing rankings from different reports. The Akamai State of the Internet report everyone was fawning over recently had Australia at rank 44 on average and peak speed, and the United States at 12 and 17 respectively. Where the US has issues their place at rank 39 on percentage of connections above 4Mbps (we're only slightly further behind).

            There's no question they're a lot better in terms of peak speeds, but high speed availability is still very poor. Another thing the Akamai report doesn't cover is stability, which is notoriously bad in the United States.

            Even so, these figures are regrettably low for a country that houses the majority of the internet's core infrastructure. Three quarters of root name servers still operate in the United States, for example.

    "100 Mbit/s service is the average standard in urban South Korean homes and the country has rolled out 1 Gbit/s (1,000 Mbit/s) connections nationwide, which cost $20 per month, approximately 263 times faster than the world average "

    Living in South Korea is mighty tempting right now. Mind you, there's a little issue of North Korea to worry about.

      I hear the people of DPRK now have access to look at a computer with internet, not touch, look.

    Interesting article. Pretty similar situation to Australia.

    Yet we had the opportunity to fix our own shitty Internet by getting it 'right' the first time and running FTTP wherever possible/practical.

    I understand it'd be significantly more expensive in the US given their population but it has to happen eventually right?

    For now, we get to have shitty Internet for another decade or two with Liberal's approach. Yay. Wonder if the old NBN will be reinstated when/if Labor is voted in to power.

    " Copper can only carry so much bandwidth, far less than what the modern internet demands. Only fibre optic cables, thick twists of ultra-thin glass or plastic filaments that allow data to travel at the speed of light, can handle that bandwidth. They’re also both easier to maintain and more secure than copper."
    This is crap. I have actually done this for a living, and have an appropriate degree and think about things correctly. It is all to do with distance of haul vs cost - fiber is less expensive over long hauls than coax because it does not need as much regeneration. Coax is way cheaper (10x) over shorter (<5k) distances - $200 per house vs $2000. Twisted pair is a separate discussion. Coax is RADIO, and thus is light, just at microwave frequencies - it is technically a waveguide/antenna, just as fiber is at shorter frequencies. Coax has the benefit of being "ultra wideband" vs "narrowband" for fiber - even the most expensive (longhaul) fiber can only carry tens of frequencies at once, coax is basically "the atmosphere as a pipe" and can carry an almost infinite amount of "lights" from DC to hundreds of megahertz. Over shorter distances coax can actually carry more capacity than single mode fiber, and is much easier to distribute.

    As for the maintenance discussion, it is a trade off of maximum lifespans vs rollout and house connect cost - coax wins where at present, sorry. DOCSIS3+ has plenty of bandwidth at reasonable contention to back-haul ratios. Get clue, seriously.

    Last edited 12/03/15 10:26 am

      Probably also worth pointing out (yet again) that fibre optic cables do not transfer data at the speed of light. The technology tends to cap out at about 2/3 c.

      Coax transmits electrical signal, not light. What sort of degree do you have??

        It looks to me like he put it in quotes for comparison sake with fibre optic. Maybe 'channels' might be clearer.

          Coax is RADIO, and thus is light, just at microwave frequencies - it is technically a waveguide/antenna, just as fiber is at shorter frequencies.
          No quote marks on that statement.

          Last edited 12/03/15 12:37 pm

            I see, I thought you were referring to the later one. Radio is light in the sense that they're both photonic radiation, but I don't know enough about cable technology to know if coaxial cables use signal induction or flow of electricity for communication.

        Just to be clear - when I say light, I mean any electromagnetic wave packet of any wavelength (the physics definition). Visible Light is just an electro-magnetic wave(packet) . "Radio", ditto - just the wavelength is different.

        As to me, compsci and mathematics with a strong hardware bias. Professionally I helped roll out the cable networks and SDH fiber and even the dreaded RIM.

        RF modulation is what cable uses, almost exactly the same modulation as free space (for example satellite or DTV). "Dots and dashes" of electrical "pulse" (DC, common mode) are on no way how the signal is sent. Even good old ethernet or ADSL are in no reasonable sense "purely electrical", like a telegraph - ADSL is basically parasitic radio transmission piggy backed on the 'electrical' POTS voice line. The issue with a POTS twisted pair line is actually that it is a "shit waveguide" - the same reason COAX is better than twisted pair to connect to your TV antenna.

        The node of a HFC FSA is a full duplex radio transmitter connected to a fiber that itself transmits a PCM encoded signal that is fed to that transmitter from the encoder at the head end (exchange) and a (tapped) waveguide - the coax. The wave packets propagate in both directions guided by surface effects of free electrons on the surface of the core metal wire in the COAX, shielded from common mode and outside RF by the outer ground shield.

        Why, what kind of degree do you have :-)

          I didn't make any claims to my degree, you did. I was pointing out the flaw in your logic. Light is a example of an electromagnetic wave, however that does not mean you should refer to all electromagnetic waves as light.

          Light is not the only example of an electromagnetic wave. Other electromagnetic waves include the microwaves you use to heat up leftovers for dinner, and the radio waves that are broadcast from radio stations. An electromagnetic wave can be created by accelerating charges; moving charges back and forth will produce oscillating electric and magnetic fields, and these travel at the speed of light. It would really be more accurate to call the speed "the speed of an electromagnetic wave", because light is just one example of an electromagnetic wave.

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