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Saturday, December 15, 2018

Columns

Slow internet impedes technological advancement in Houston


We click, we tap, we scroll, without a care in the world until the loathed loading symbol shows up. Internet, the lifeblood of every college student, is unnecessarily slow in the great United States and in Houston. Faster internet speeds would guarantee our city, the hub of oil and gas, a place in the international competitive arena.

With almost 6 million people living throughout the sprawling metro area, can the city of Houston actually make a reasonable attempt at getting gigabit-speed internet to its people? A city with a GDP comparable to the country of Argentina deserves correspondingly modern infrastructure to support it.

Texas has slightly-under-average internet connection compared to the rest of the U.S. The Houston area ranks far below our interstate rival of Austin, which recently made Amazon’s shortlist for a new headquarters.

One report recently ranked the U.S. as No. 10 in average internet connection speed. This is ridiculous because America is considered the birthplace of the Internet after UCLA professor, Leonard Kleinrock, used the internet to convey the first message to a colleague of his. Comparatively, Germany was responsible for the invention of the automobile and their brands still represent the pinnacle of automotive luxury and innovation

Faster internet is enormously better for residents and businesses, so what can the people of Houston do to get faster access to the internet?

Chattanooga, Tennessee, was the first U.S. city to offer its residents gigabit speed internet. There were a lot of obstacles impeding its path toward this achievement.

One reason: Telecom companies do not consider Chattanooga an ideal site for fast-paced internet.  And the city was updating an aging power grid, and a desire for smart meters led officials to bring fiber-optic cables to homes and businesses throughout the area, turning the power company into an internet service provider as well.

Fiber-optic cables contain glass strands that use pulses of light to carry communication signals and can carry higher internet speeds than standard coaxial cables.

The local telecom companies were irritated and tried to prevent this project from succeeding because it was not initiated by them. This level of control is alarming, because it can leave the telecoms with the responsibility of deciding which cities can advance. However, in the end Chattanooga became the first city in America with the “gig.”

Meanwhile, gigabit-speed internet is already available in Houston, mainly within master-planned communities in far-flung suburbs, thanks to AT&T and Comcast.

However, it can be difficult and prohibitively expensive — especially for stingy cable companies — to install the fiber-optic cables necessary to achieve higher internet speeds in already-developed areas.

This doesn’t account for areas that don’t even have decent access to the internet already. These areas, coincidentally, often lie in low income and minority neighborhoods.

Telecoms are deciding the fates of these neighborhoods and cities, and without their support progress is nearly impossible. Chattanooga dedicated its efforts to investing within itself, but not every community has the resources or ambition to do so.

Houston, the heart of oil and gas, should have the proper bait to lure telecoms in, but they still do not place the confidence in our city that we have earned.

Roads and yards have to be dug up, and that can be a major inconvenience with minimum reward when providing for just residential connections. This is why it would make the most sense to start  improving the internet of businesses and public institutions first.

I would propose starting out by providing fiber-optic connections to the main economic hubs of the city: at least Downtown, the Texas Medical Center and the Energy Corridor. These areas drive Houston’s economy, and they would probably provide the highest return on investment. It is shocking that these places do not already have these high speeds of connection, because they’re responsible for medicine and business enterprises such as Chevron, Shell and CenterPoint.

I would then expand to all academic and public institutions, such as universities, libraries, K-12 schools and public spaces. Students and the general public would benefit from being able to easily connect and take care of homework, research and general entertainment needs. Also, people would have another great reason to enjoy our public spaces.

Given that Google, one of the most valuable companies in the world, can’t make connecting houses with fiber-cables feasible on a small scale, I believe that expanding into homes would be unnecessary, especially if this initiative was publicly funded.

Infrastructure makes or breaks a city. In order for Houston to compete with the San Franciscos and Austins of the technology world, we must invest in the roads of the modern age: the internet.

Senior staff columnist Perren Wright is a biomedical engineering sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]

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