Does the FCC Want Our Internet Slow?

It looks as though the Obama pledge for evidence-based policy will take a blow on Tuesday, when FCC commissioners will testify in House and Senate hearings about the national broadband plan.

The Bush administration policy was not to have a broadband plan at all, and so at the dawn of Obama things looked bright for Internet users across the United States. The new Obama FCC started by requesting extensive academic research on broadband from Harvard, Columbia, and elsewhere.

The researchers and the FCC both linked broadband to economic opportunity, health care, education, government performance, civic engagement, clean energy and public safety. Whether these links work in the way they are described poses important issues that we leave for another time. However, there's no question that broadband is positioned in public discourse as the most critical of critical infrastructures. So then why is the US such a laggard?

The researchers suggested that the FCC needed to make some hard decisions to implement the next generation of the Internet in the US, and so the FCC threw the research away.

In case you don't travel, the performance of the Internet infrastructure in the US has declined dramatically over the last decade vs. comparable countries. Even Portugal, Italy, and Greece, which we do not typically see as our economic peers, have faster and more affordable broadband service. We've gone from an Internet leader to the middle of the pack, while in the most advanced technologies the story is dismal. In very-high speed service the US ranks dead last on price and availability in the Harvard study. (All comparisons from this paragraph are from the Harvard study.)

As Bruce Kushnick writes on Nieman Watchdog, here in the US we now get 1/20th the speed available in Hong Kong, Japan or France, and 1/100th the upload speed. As Harvard Professor Yochai Benkler said to NPR, "prices in the leading countries... are a third or a fifth of the prices that we're paying--and they're getting better speeds for it."

Last week the FCC's national broadband plan was released to some fanfare. (See Timothy Karr in the HuffPost on Wednesday.) Here let's focus on broadband availability: the key problem that this report is meant to address.

The FCC's big national broadband roll-out goal is this: 100 million homes should have access to 100 megabits per second by 2015. Unfortunately, the research commissioned by the FCC from Columbia states that this is very similar to what the industry has promised to do anyway, perhaps even by the end of 2010.

It is particularly damning that many of the other countries we compare ourselves to have lower prices and have made much smaller public investments. Although you might think that a Tennessee Valley Authority or a Rural Electrification Administration is required fix our broadband problem (and indeed a Rural Broadband Authority might in fact fix the problem), there are other ways. One big difference is effective regulation.

Blair Levin, principal architect of the FCC plan, gave this truly amazing quote to Ars Technica just before the plan's release. In other countries, Levin says, "when a regulator says to do something, what happens is that within a very reasonable, short time frame, those things are done." But, he explains, "[w]hat happens in the United States is that, when a regulator says something--I'm not complaining about it; I'm just pointing out reality--it's challenged in the courts."

The worldview at the FCC is so skewed that if a rule would displease the companies that the FCC is supposed to be regulating, apparently the staffers declare it to be off the table.

The evidence-based Harvard report demonstrated that a series of "open access" policies had been effective elsewhere and recommended them for the US (they include unbundling, collocation, wholesaling, and more--see p. 13-14). While they're good for the country, these rules will threaten corporate profits at monopolists like AT&T and Comcast.

If the watchword of this administration is evidence-based policy, why is the evidence on broadband being ignored? This regulatory moment fits into a longer historical pattern. The telecommunications industry in the US regularly promises private investment in new high-speed infrastructure in exchange for tax breaks and favorable regulatory rulings. We've already spent $320 billion on fiber deployment through this sort of tax incentive in the last 20 years. Then, via a merger shell game and the short memory of regulators, these promises are forgotten.

We hoped the Obama administration promised a sharp turn for an agency historically synonymous with unseemly corporate influence and a revolving door between industry and government. It's cynical to say, but instead the national broadband plan looks like a response to the challenging health reform debate. Propose a plan that doesn't do anything. When it passes, you can claim it as a success.

We're asking: Does this country need a regulator that doesn't do anything? The greatest challenges to the communication needs of the US aren't in the government report because it's the authors that are the problem. It's time for the FCC itself to be reformed. The FCC should take its cue from us and not the companies it is supposed to regulate.