One of the commissioners on the board of the Federal Communications Commission is taking shots at the state of broadband in the US. In an op-ed piece in yesterday’s Washington Post, Democrat commissioner Michael J. Copps criticized the state of broadband in the US and called for changes in how the FCC handles broadband.
Part of the problem comes from how the FCC defines broadband penetration. Under the Commission’s guidelines, a zip code is said to be served by broadband if there is a single person within its boundaries with a 200kbps connection. Not only is that a metric that sets the broadband bar incredibly low—less than four times faster than dial-up—but it does nothing to assess how deeply broadband service has penetrated into a given area.
Copps also cites a sad litany of metrics. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the US sits in 15th place worldwide when it comes to broadband penetration. The US does even worse with another ITU metric, the Digital Opportunity Index (DOI). The DOI measures 11 different variables, including Internet access price, proportion of users online, and proportion of homes with Internet access, and it slots the US in at the number 21 position, right between Estonia and Slovenia (South Korea, Japan, and Denmark top the DOI).
Most US residents stuck with a subpar broadband connections will agree that the biggest problem is competition. We have talked about the cable/DSL duopoly before on Ars, and as Copps points out, duopolies are best-case scenarios at the moment. Many broadband users are stuck with only one option when it comes to broadband.
According to Copps, "the FCC needs to start working to lower prices and introduce competition." Unfortunately, Copps’ vision of competition doesn’t appear to address what is arguably the biggest problem of all: the FCC’s policy of classifying broadband as an information service, deregulating it, and counting upon competition between modes of delivery (e.g., cable vs. DSL) to save the day. Copps ignores that issue altogether, calling on to FCC to speed up the process of making unlicensed spectrum available and encourage "third pipe" broadband technologies such as BPL (broadband over power lines) and wireless.
Those proposals are a start, but by themselves are not enough to effect significant change in the near term. BPL, despite the periodic attention it gets, has less than 6,000 customers in the US. By and large, utilities have not shown themselves to be interested in getting into the ISP business. Opening up spectrum is no panacea, either. WiMAX deployments are just beginning and will not come cheaply.
Here are a couple of other suggestions. First, cities and towns should be allowed—if not encouraged—to build and deploy broadband networks. This goes beyond rolling out city-wide WiFi networks and into the area of fiber optics. Currently, a handful of states bar municipal governments from rolling their own fiber optic networks. The massive rewrite of telecom legislation that emerged from the Senate Commerce Committee last summer would override such state-level restrictions, allowing any city to get into the game. That bill has been stalled, however, and is unlikely to see the light of day in light of the election results this week.
Another option the FCC should seriously consider is turning back the clock on deregulation. Up until the FCC classified DSL as an information service, ILECs (incumbent local exchange carriers—phone companies) were required to lease their lines to DSL providers at competitive rates. That left consumers with a number of choices for DSL: your local phone company, EarthLink, and Speakeasy to name three. In the wake of deregulation, that is no longer the case. Sure, the ILEC will still lease its lines to other companies, but it will cost them. Cole Reinward, EarthLink’s VP for municipal product strategy and marketing, told Ars Technica earlier this week that the DSL wholesale rates offered to EarthLink by ILECs "weren’t particularly attractive and close to what they are offering retail to subscribers, making it difficult to compete on price."
Copps calls for the kind of "public-private initiatives like those that built the railroad, highway, and telephone systems." That’s an excellent start—just look at the increasing number of municipal WiFi networks being developed via city-company partnerships. But when the private sector drops the ball, the public sector needs to have free rein to step in. Witness Qwest in Seattle: the telecom has refused to deploy fiber in Seattle while at the same time lobbying against the city’s developing its own network.
Let’s also get our metrics straight. Although 200kbps might look good to someone whose only alternative is dial-up, it’s a joke when it comes to broadband. Revise it to something realistic, like 768kbps, which has become the lowest-tiered DSL offering available in most geographies and arguably marks the lower limit of "true" broadband. And make sure we rely on a representative sampling of an area to determine broadband penetration instead of the current single-person-in-a-zip-code model.
It seems like everybody agrees on an essential point: access to "quality," reasonably priced broadband is crucial in this day and age. Unfortunately, we’re not even close in the US. Yes, the nation’s two largest telecoms are at this moment rolling out new fiber optic networks. Better yet, consumers in areas served by Verizon’s new FiOS network are seeing the benefits of increased competition: some cable providers in those areas are bumping speeds up to 15Mbps/1.5Mbps. However, fiber deployments are slow and selective, leaving most Americans out in the cold.
We may be looking at a radically different landscape in five years, with WiMAX, BPL, cable, DSL, and municipal WiFi networks offering consumers a host of equally-good choices. That rosy outcome is by no means guaranteed—there’s much that has to be done in the interim to make it a reality.
Further reading:Washington Post: America’s Internet DisconnectITU: Digital Opportunity IndexFCC rules on fiber, power-line broadband regulationFCC rules on cable lines