All eyes are on the Federal Communications Commission as the agency will vote on Feb. 26 to reclassify the Internet under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. But in a less noticed, more amusing vote on Jan. 29 the FCC declared that a “high-speed” Internet connection is defined as 25 megabits a second or faster—up from four megabits a second. What’s so funny? The commissioners are lowballing it, and they know it.
Regulation has failed telecom; the numbers tell the story. In 1970Intel sold a 64-bit chip called the 3101 for $40, setting off a revolution in computer design. Rounding down, let’s call it a bit for a buck. I just went on Amazon and bought a 64-gigabit memory card for $40, and only because I paid $6 for overnight shipping. A billion bits for a buck—a whopping one billion times improvement. Even more if you adjusted the cost for inflation.
A few years later IBM came out with a 200-megabit hard drive known as the IBM 3330, or Merlin. For the equivalent of $1 million, you could configure eight of them into a 1.6 GB hard drive. Today you can buy a 2-terabit hard drive the size of a paperback book for $100. In other words, a 10 million times improvement.
In 1975 Kodak employee Steven Sasson created a prototype of a digital camera. It boasted 0.01 megapixels, weighed 8 pounds and took 23 seconds to snap a black-and-white photo that it stored on a cassette tape. Digital cameras are now basically free with your cellphone.
Here’s where the story gets weird. In the mid-1970s AT&T offered the 212 modem, which allowed workers to sit at home and dial into their office computers at a speed of 1,200 bits per second. Very few did until AOL began offering dial-in services over rickety phone lines. Today, Comcast and others provide Internet access at an average of 11.5 megabits per second speeds.
The FCC calls that broadband, but it is still too slow. Unlike the billion-fold or even 10-million-fold improvements of silicon or storage, communications speeds have improved merely 10,000 times. That is pretty good compared with the pace of the post office, but not with the rest of technology.