A few days ago there were reports that Korea, already a leader in telecommunications infrastructure, would be pursuing plans to provide 1 Gbps Internet connectivity across the country by 2012. An excerpt from the Slashdot summary:
The entire country is gearing up to have 1 Gbps service by 2012, or at least that is what the Korea Communications Commission (KCC) is claiming. 'Currently, Koreans can get speeds up to 100 Mbps, which is still nearly double the speed of Charter's new 60 Mbps service. The new plan by the KCC will cost 34.1 trillion ($24.6 billion USD) over the next five years. The central government will put up 1.3 trillion won, with the remainder coming from private telecom operators.
Now, whenever facts like this are mentioned, people ask why we in Canada and the US are stuck with paltry two to ten Mbps connections that also suffer from ISP bandwidth throttling and traffic shaping policies. Usually at least one response points out that the US and Canada are vastly larger countries, and it is therefore not economically feasible to cover the entire country in high-speed fibre-optic links. An unusually mild example is this comment to the Slashdot story:
Korea is roughly 1/100th the size of the US. If we estimate a similar plan in the US based on size only, it would cost $2.46 trillion USD. The Korean government is paying 1.3 trillion of the 34.1 total (or roughly 4%). If the US government did something similar, it would be about $100 billion USD.
Population, not area
Although the above argument is technically correct, it confuses coverage of landmass with coverage of people. The fact is, there is no need to provide high speed internet to vast tracts of US and Canadian wilderness, or even rural, regions. There are inhabited areas in both countries that have no broadband connectivity whatsoever, and likely more than a few villages that lack even dial-up. The point of expanding the capabilities of North American Internet infrastructure is not to provide everywhere with high-speed connections, but to provide them to as many people as possible. Focussing on the densely populated metropolitan centres of both countries reveals what a specious argument comparing areas is.
First, some background statistics to frame the discussion: The area of South Korea is almost exactly 100,000 square km. The US and Canada cover approximately 9,826,600 and 9,984,700 square km, respectively. The estimated population of the US is a shade under 306 million, while Canada is home to 33 and a half million souls. The GDP of Korea is just under one trillion US$; the US's a bit more than 14 trillion, and Canada's is almost exactly one tenth of that, at 1.4 trillion.
If the US government and telecoms would invest in providing a similar level of coverage to just the five most populated cities and surrounding areas (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Philadelphia), it would represent an area of 85,966 square kilometres (so, well under the area of Korea), and would provide coverage to 53,189,247 people. Furthermore, there are a number of areas that I suspect state governments and even local corporations would be willing to help finance the buildout; San Diego, Irvine, and San Francisco come to mind, as do Washington D.C. and Seattle. On top of that, if we use GDP as a very rough measure of the relative investment potential of the two nations, it seems clear that the US should be able to afford an investment around 15 times as large in the first place. Adding up all these factors, it's clear that the US could easily afford to extend coverage well beyond those five areas, and provide coverage to many millions more, as well as most of the country's technology hubs.
In Canada, the situation is even more extreme. The top five metropolitan areas (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, and Calgary), cover just 24,687 square kilometres, and contain just over 13 million of Canada's 33 and a half million inhabitants. In other words, almost 40% of the population in less than a quarter of South Korea's area. Extending coverage to the top ten municipalities would likely produce quickly diminishing returns, but would probably still encompass less territory than the Korean plan, while providing coverage to over half the population. Given that Canada's GDP is roughly 1.5 times that of South Korea, the proportional size of the investment would be even smaller.
No need to go overboard
Now, 1 Gbps may be an investment in the future, but in this context one must certainly mean the distant future; for the fact is that 1 Gbps is not just extremely fast, it is gratuitously fast. To put it in perspective, a network connection of that speed would be able to simultaneously carry between 50 and 200 HDTV channels (depending on quality and compression). An investment in Canada or the US to provide connectivity at 100 Mbps (the current Korean high-end class of connectivity) would require a much lower cost, while still providing connections 10 to 50 times faster than the current residential standard of 2 to 10 Mbps. I'd settle for that. So why doesn't it happen?