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Fixing our fraying Internet infrastructure

Is the United States foolishly ignoring a question that will impact its future? For UCSD's Michael Kleeman, it's time to stop debating the obvious.

In our industrial and information society, our daily lives depend on things we take for granted: electricity, fresh water, communications and our road system.

The infrastructure underlying each has a limited useful life and is designed to meet the expected demand when deployed. But demand changes, and without proper planning and investment all infrastructure will eventually fail.

Americans are serious about infrastructure if California voter support for recent water, transportation and school bonds is any indication. In the same way that levees and bridges need to be safe and reliable, our communications networks need to handle our growing Internet traffic. Imagine a day without phone or Internet service, and then imagine a week without them during a crisis.

The broadband infrastructure in the United States is largely invisible to all but a few engineers. Were it as visible as a road system it would appear to be excellent in some places, but riddled with potholes in others; heavily congested at many times and locations; and in need of massive redesign.

We need ubiquitous broadband penetration in the U.S. if we intend to claim leadership in the next Internet age.

The problem is that we have reached a point of disconnect between the traditional Internet's architecture and the needs of today's customers. The traditional Internet's architecture was not designed, nor can it be expected to handle, the demands being placed on it. Bandwidth demand is growing rapidly, outpacing supply. It's as if every home in America suddenly needed 10 times more water at 10 times the quality coming out of the same size faucet.

Today, the average home uses as much bandwidth as a major office park did a few years ago. Remember when you used Internet access for just e-mail? Now, chances are you e-mail photos, download music and watch videos, often all at the same time. The bandwidth consumed by a popular YouTube video, "The Evolution of Dance," downloaded 54 million times, equals an entire month's worth of data network traffic in the year 2000. iTunes usage grew 47.5 percent in 2006 alone.

The Internet has gone from a complement to everyday living to a principal platform for business and personal activities. Jitters and low-quality service are unacceptable. The Internet needs to be able to deliver huge amounts of quality traffic anytime and anywhere, and the nation's current infrastructure cannot handle exponential growth.

We think our broadband is fine. But in five years, we have dropped from 4th place to 15th place on the broadband ranking kept by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. When students visit from South Korea, which perennially ranks above the U.S., they are shocked by two things: the homeless problem and the sad state of broadband in this country. Being in 15th place means that innovation will happen in countries that have the digital infrastructure (and digital culture) to incubate the next great idea.

The technological formula for broadband competitiveness is simple: deliver more quality bandwidth to more people faster. The first approach is to build more capacity, which is happening. Compression and network triage are two other technological solutions. Traffic, especially video, can be compressed to reduce the network demands.

Core routers, the switches of the Internet, can become increasingly sophisticated. They can speed time-sensitive traffic through the Internet more quickly than, for instance, e-mails, which can be delivered a few seconds later without consumers noticing or caring.

A national broadband policy is an essential part of the formula. A central component of this policy must drive us toward universal access to broadband. High-speed Internet access is not a luxury, but should be considered a necessity for members of a developed country. Fifty percent, even 75 percent, penetration is not acceptable.

We need ubiquitous broadband penetration in the U.S. if we intend to claim leadership in the next Internet age. Every year, we can expect a fresh crop of laws, rules and policies intended to help the Internet. Each should be mercilessly analyzed based on whether they will hurt or help the nation's broadband competitiveness and whether they get us to 99 percent.

Getting there will take leadership, the kind we saw from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in making the case for roads, schools and levees. Even though we can't see the Internet, our economy depends upon broadband. Without investments in broadband infrastructure, not only will consumers suffer, but we will experience a creeping lack of competitiveness, as well as job loss and the gradual ceding of our Internet leadership to other nations.

And one day, in the not-too-distant future, two people in a garage in the U.S. won't start the next great Internet company--because two people in a garage in South Korea or France or the U.K. will already have.