You have the right to broadband

Last month, Finland caused a bit of a stir by declaring broadband a legal right. Some people took that to mean that the Finnish government thinks everyone should have free broadband. What the law actually says is that a minimum of 1 Mbps connectivity must be made available to everyone by the middle of next year. Anyone who wants to subscribe will still have to pay for it.

In that sense, the Finnish government stance on broadband doesn't seem all that different from government rationales for private-public broadband initiatives in Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and elsewhere. The goals are basically the same: cover the nation with broadband in a certain period of time. Finland is simply the second country (after France) to frame it in terms of a basic right.

How fast?
Still, it's a bold statement. And while the free-marketers might get hung up over whether anyone is or isn't entitled to a broadband connection, as a technology maven, my first reaction to the news was: "What, just one lousy megabit?"

To be fair, the law expands that requirement to 100 Mbps by 2015, so I'm assuming that Finland selected the 1-Mbps benchmark out of expediency. After all, making broadband a right implies universal availability, and the only way to do that by the middle of next year (when the law takes effect) is to include mobile broadband (which the law does).

Whether anyone will settle for 1 Mbps at the end of the first decade of the 21st century is another story.

Take a recent study from the Communications Workers of America, who complained that the US is averaging broadband speeds of 5.1 Mbps - which, they say, is embarrassing compared to other countries. The CWA frets that at this rate, it will take the US 15 years to get to the broadband speeds that most South Koreans are getting today.

On the other hand, a February report from In-Stat found that 78% of US broadband users were happy with their service.
So does speed really matter? Lest we forget, DSL is still the chief source of broadband in the world (over 64% of the world's total, according to Point Topic's Q209 stats, compared to less than 13% for FTTx). Meanwhile, in emerging markets, the initial internet experience is increasingly via mobile networks. Mobile broadband projects across Southeast Asia, whether they're 3G-based or Wimax, aren't achieving more than 5-6 Mbps, for the most part.

As always, it really depends on the apps you're running. And as we've discussed in this space before, even streaming apps for mobile do very well performance-wise on less than 1 Mbps.Still, it's becoming increasingly clear that broadband users are starting to expect more bang for their buck. Two months ago, a South African company decided to call attention to the dismal 1-Mbps ADSL speeds from government-owned incumbent telco Telkom SA via a publicity stunt based on an old IETF April Fool's Day joke called IP over Avian Carriers (IPoAC). In essence, the company hired a carrier pigeon to carry a 4-GB micro-SD card from a branch office in Howick to its head office 70 km away, while the same data was uploaded to the same location via ADSL.

The pigeon won handsomely.

Granted, ADSL uplink speeds in any market aren't stellar, and if the benchmark had been latency - or if the pigeon had had to fly to Beijing - the results would have been different. But the real point of the whole exercise was to complain that South African broadband delivers very little speed for the price.

All of which is why Finland's 1-Mbps seems piddly to me. If we're going to declare broadband a legal right, and we're going to set a benchmark at where that legal right starts, surely we can do better than a speed that, with today's web, might as well be dial-up.

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