Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The "Talking Broadband Down" Crowd

The predictable laments from those who cite the latest OECD broadband penetration statistics are getting tiresome. Quite simply, those here in the U.S. who continue to talk down this country's broadband achievements clearly have a policy agenda in mind. The agenda is to impose net neutrality (read: common carrier regulation) on broadband providers on the perverse theory that somehow consumers will take more broadband if all the providers are required to offer exactly the same service--just as in the good ol' days of Ma Bell.

Today's Communications Daily [subscription required] refers to a letter David Gross, U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, sent to the OCED pointing out the flaws in the OECD's broadband statistics. Gross explained that the OECD reports rely too heavily on counting mere subscriptions as a measure of broadband use (this ignores, for example, the fact that most colleges today have campus-wide WiFi access where thousands of students have high-speed access but no "subscriptions," that millions of others use thousands of WiFi hot spots throughout the country, and that many businesses obtain broadband through high-capacity special access facilities that are not even counted as "subscriptions" in the OECD reports). OECD also ignores important factors such as geographic diversity and population density differences that impact broadband penetration.

The plain fact of the matter is that the U.S. has more broadband subscribers--64 million as of June 2006--than any country in the world. And the most recent FCC report, encouragingly, showed that the largest increase in the number of broadband subscribers occurred in the wireless segment. From June 2005 to June 2006, the number of broadband wireless subscriptions increased exponentially from 380,000 to 11 million.

Rather than celebrating this good news, which is at least partly attributable to the FCC's deregulatory broadband policies under the leadership of FCC Chairmen Michael Powell and Kevin Martin, the "talking broadband down" crowd continues to relish trotting out the flawed OECD statistics to advance a pro-regulatory agenda. FCC Commissioner Michael Copps is a leader of this choir. A prominent member of the chorus is Ben Scott, policy director of the Free Press organization. Again, according to today's Communications Daily, Mr. Scott is quoted as telling a Senate Committee yesterday: "Roughly 10% of the households still do not have a wireless broadband provider. The market is not competitive. It remains a rigid duopoly at the residential level."

Recall that it was only a short while ago that the "talking broadband down" crowd claimed that most Americans had a choice of only one broadband provider. Now we have a "rigid" duopoly because 10% of American households do not have a wireless provider. This is silly. It is plain for all to see that the U.S. broadband marketplace is highly dynamic and increasingly competitive. Compared to most all other countries around the globe, it is hyper-dynamic and competitive.

In somewhat contradictory fashion, Mr. Scott goes on to say: "It's not that broadband isn't available to most Americans--we're just not buying it...We need more competitive, affordable services with attractive features to make it worth the family's hard earned dollars." What Mr. Scott is really saying is that the "attractive feature" he would like to see is for the government to mandate "neutrality" by regulating the Internet in the same way he wants the government to mandate the "fairness" of broadcast content. I think Americans would prefer to see their "hard earned" tax dollars used in other ways.

As I have written many times before (see here and here), apart from the deleterious impact on new investment and innovation caused by implementing the pro-regulation policies advocated by the "talking broadband down" crowd, laws and regulations mandating "neutrality" and "fairness" in content carried raise very serious First Amendment issues in today's digital environment, whether we are talking about broadband Internet providers or other communications providers. More about the First Amendment interests at stake regarding the net neutrality issue and other current communications issues in the coming weeks.