25 Jan 2013

Solutions for slow broadband Internet in the U.S.? Unlikely.

Susan Crawford, former Obama Administration technology advisory, ICANN board member, and network neutrality advocate, has an interesting op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times offering steps she suggests are needed to increase broadband Internet access - specifically high-capacity fiber networks - for people living in the United States. She argues a relatively ineffective Federal Communications Commission along with political pressure from and oligopoly of network-owning corporations (Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner and Verizon control almost all broadband Internet access in the U.S.) have obstructed innovation and expansion of faster Web access for Americans.

Here are her three primary suggestions:

First, [the Federal government] must remove barriers to investment in local fiber networks … in nearly 20 states, laws sponsored by incumbent network operators have raised barriers for cities wanting to foster competitive networks.

Second, the F.C.C. must make reasonably priced high-speed access available to everyone. In the 20th century, we made a commitment to provide universal telephone service to every American and to subsidize that utility service for our poor and rural neighbors. […] We need to make sure that subsidies are available for competitive companies willing to extend world-class service to more Americans.

Finally, the F.C.C. must foster more competition by changing the rules that keep the status quo in place. There is a raft of regulations and processes at the F.C.C. that incumbents wield to maintain their market power, including rules about access to programming and to telephone poles that favor existing providers.

While many of these recommendations are also spelled out in FCC’s National Broadband Plan, I have my doubts about these changes happening, particularly about the possibilities of Crawford’s second and third points.

Today’s discussions of broadband expansion can be best illustrated by understanding how FCC’s relatively hands-off approach has led to a two-sided debate. On one side you have network providers whose incentive is to maximize profits by providing adequate access and speed while making minimal expensive infrastructure investments (network/fiber upgrades.) The other is largely composed of web content and technology companies (Google, Amazon, Netflix, Microsoft, etc.) whose popularity and success depends on fast, reliable and affordable access to the Internet.

So for Crawford’s suggestions to even occur, we will need to see either A.) a newly empowered and enthusiastic FCC willing impose regulations or access requirements on current network providers or B.) intervention of web/tech companies to disrupt the currently uncompetitive Internet market and encourage existing providers to get better and cheaper or for users to have more options. As Crawford notes in her article, we’re beginning to see some movement with Google’s building of a fiber network for Kansas City, Mo. Unfortunately, until we see movement on either of these fronts, U.S. broadband speeds will remain slow.

World Broadband Speeds (BBC)

(Above, World Broadband Speed map via BBC)