Tractors and dial-up: YouTube highlights the problem with rural Internet
Yesterday, I wrote that YouTube had started snitching on Internet service providers incapable of providing their customers with an interruption-free video stream. Companies like YouTube and Netflix use these reports to redirect frustration toward ISPs and lead to favorable deals as a result, but the new reports from YouTube also show something else: just how little competition there is between ISPs in the United States.
I live in Ovid, New York -- the middle of nowhere. When I was hired to Pando, Sarah Lacy wrote an intro post in which she said that the only thing she knew about my hometown is that it sounds cold. (It is.) As of the 2000 census there were some 2,700 people living in the town, with just 600 living in the village itself. Though the region in which I live (the Finger Lakes) is a popular tourist trap, the towns themselves epitomize the definition of "rural," and they have the horses to prove it.
There are two ISPs operating in the area: the Finger Lakes Technologies Group, which offers dial-up connections; and the only source of broadband connections, Time Warner Cable. The only option available to people who live outside the village itself is FLTG -- TWC doesn't see much point in expanding its service to include everyone who lives outside of the village. This is the average performance of TWC's service, according to one of the new YouTube reports:
These charts show that most TWC subscribers can expect high definition YouTube streams the vast majority of the time. The "Standard Definition" rating on the left applies to my own Internet connection, the quality of which is captured in these charts:
For a dial-up connection, that chart doesn't look too bad. Most of the time I'm able to watch a video from YouTube or Netflix without too many problems, though Netflix often downgrades me to standard definition to avoid buffering issues. But there's a stark contrast between the average quality of service between FLTG and TWC: I can expect high definition streams some 70 percent of the time, while TWC subscribers get the same quality 90 percent of the time.
The problem is, there are no options for someone living in the boonies. If they want to connect to the Internet they have to use something like FLTG; there are no other options. And for people who live in the village itself, the only broadband provider is TWC -- if they're unhappy with the company their only option is downgrading to something like FLTG. So far as choices go, it's clear that people who live in small towns like this one are totally screwed.
This is a problem all across the country. Many people have access to just a handful of ISPs, many of which are regional offerings that pale in comparison to their national counterparts, which enjoy a monopoly on the high-end service market in many of the places they operate. That's why the proposed merger between Comcast and TWC is so worrisome: if they are able to become one company, it will be given uncontested control over high-end Internet services.
That won't just affect people living in towns where tractors and buggies are seen more often than bicycles and buses. It will affect everyone hoping the US' Internet infrastructure might improve to match the rest of the developed world's, and it won't be for the better.