Sunday, May 22, 2016

Pleas for more competition make case for public option in telecom infrastructure

America’s telecommunications infrastructure crisis is fundamentally a microeconomic problem. Vertically integrated Internet service providers and consumers have difficulty transacting on mutually agreeable terms that consumers regard as offering good value. And about one of five American homes and small businesses can’t purchase landline Internet connections at all because none are offered to them.

Many consumer advocates and commentators frame the economic problem as one of insufficient competition. If there were only more providers offering services, then more consumers would be offered service and at superior value over that sold by legacy telephone and cable companies. After all, that’s how the competitive market works for other consumer services such as home improvement, landscaping, and housecleaning. Offer good service at reasonable value, you’re competitive. If you don’t, you’re not and could end up run out of business by the competition. The same rules should apply to “broadband” since it too is a service, the thinking goes. Consumers want the freedom to ditch their service provider and choose another offering better value.

It doesn’t work that way for telecommunications services including Internet because they are vertically integrated services – typically delivered by the same providers that own the infrastructure to deliver them. Due to the high cost of building and maintaining that infrastructure, there will only be one or two providers. Adding more competitors to build alternate “pipes” to compete with these providers isn’t an option because these high capital and operating costs discourage new entrants. Choice A is the telephone company. Choice B is the cable company. If they both suck on service and value – which they often do -- you’re out of luck.

But there is an alternative – the “public option” as it was termed in the recent policy discussion on health insurance reform: publicly owned infrastructure. That disintermediates ownership of telecommunications delivery infrastructure from the services offered over it like voice, data and video. In doing so, it eliminates the potential for abuse of the monopoly market power of the vertically integrated legacy providers to hold consumers hostage. The potential for abuse is substantial because a home or business must “subscribe” to their connections. Without a subscription to the hookup, none of these services are available. Having ownership of the infrastructure allows them to call all the shots. It doesn’t have to be that way.

There is only one entity in the United States that has the economic capacity to construct publicly owned, modern fiber optic telecom infrastructure that connects all American homes, businesses and institutions: the federal government. I discuss in detail in my recent eBook, Service Unavailable: America’s Telecommunications Infrastructure Crisis.

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