Broadband Bound

Stephen DeAngelis

November 9, 2006

In a world where connectivity is a good predictor of success, Americans have good reason to be concerned about how quickly (or how slowly) the country’s broadband connections are being made. The U.S. thinks of itself as the leader of the information technology revolution and yet, according to a Washington Post op-ed piece by Michael J. Copps, America is lagging other countries when it comes to broadband connections [“America’s Internet Disconnect,” 8 November 2006]. Copps writes:

America’s record in expanding broadband communication is so poor that it should be viewed as an outrage by every consumer and businessperson in the country. Too few of us have broadband connections, and those who do pay too much for service that is too slow. It’s hurting our economy, and things are only going to get worse if we don’t do something about it. The United States is 15th in the world in broadband penetration, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). When the ITU measured a broader “digital opportunity” index (considering price and other factors) we were 21st — right after Estonia. Asian and European customers get home connections of 25 to 100 megabits per second (fast enough to stream high-definition video). Here, we pay almost twice as much for connections that are one-twentieth the speed.

Ouch! My company lives on its broadband connections. I’m constantly on the road as is Enterra’s Senior Managing Director, Tom Barnett. I have telecommuters living in Florida, California, Tennessee, and Rhode Island as well as a headquarters in Pennsylvania and an operations center in Washington, DC. I’m sure my business is not unique in that respect. As far as I’m concerned, the faster the connection the better for business. Copps rhetorically asks how this could have happened. His short answer: Through a lack of competition.

As the Congressional Research Service puts it, U.S. consumers face a “cable and telephone broadband duopoly.” And that’s more like a best-case scenario: Many households are hostage to a single broadband provider, and nearly one-tenth have no broadband provider at all. For businesses, it’s just as bad. The telecom merger spree has left many office buildings with a single provider — leading to annual estimated overcharges of $8 billion.

America’s broadband availability, Copps argues, should provide value added for companies wanting to do business in the U.S. If it is not, the results could be economically disastrous. On the other hand, wide availability to broadband connections could create an economic boon.

The stakes for our economy could not be higher. Our broadband failure places a ceiling over the productivity of far too much of the country. Should we expect small-town businesses to enter the digital economy, and students to enter the digital classroom, via a dial-up connection? The Internet can bring life-changing opportunities to those who don’t live in large cities, but only if it is available and affordable. Even in cities and suburbs, the fact that broadband is too slow, too expensive and too poorly subscribed is a significant drag on our economy. Some experts estimate that universal broadband adoption would add $500 billion to the U.S. economy and create 1.2 million jobs.

Copps argues that America needs a broadband strategy. Certainly this is one area where Democrats and Republicans can work together to improve America and demonstrate that it is possible to heal the divisiveness that has been the hallmark of the political landscape. Copps, who is part of the FCC bureaucracy, offers some recommendations:

To begin with, the Federal Communications Commission’s … reports seem designed mostly to obscure the fact that we are falling behind the rest of the world. The FCC still defines broadband as 200 kilobits per second, assumes that if one person in a Zip code area has access to broadband then everyone does and fails to gather any data on pricing. The FCC needs to start working to lower prices and introduce competition. We must start meeting our legislative mandate to get advanced telecommunications out to all Americans at reasonable prices; make new licensed and unlicensed spectrum available; authorize “smart radios” that use spectrum more efficiently; and do a better job of encouraging “third pipe” technologies such as wireless and broadband over power lines. And we should recommend steps to Congress to ensure the FCC’s ability to implement long-term solutions. … The solution to our broadband crisis must ultimately involve public-private initiatives like those that built the railroad, highway and telephone systems. Combined with an overhaul of our universal service system to make sure it is focusing on the needs of broadband, this represents our best chance at recapturing our leadership position. It seems plain enough that our present policies aren’t working. Inattention and muddling through may be the path of least resistance, but they should not and must not represent our national policy on this critical issue.

What Copps is proposing is a Development-in-a-Box™ approach for broadband. Such an approach is standards based and involves public-private partnerships to develop critical infrastructure. I wholly support such an approach. If we can’t get Development-in-a-Box to work at home, how can we expect it to work abroad? Let’s hope Copps’ voice is heard by the new Congress and we move quickly to get America back to the top of the information age leaderboard.