Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Why the private market fails on broadband

Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington, DC-based technology policy think tank, explains why the private sector -- mostly represented by the telco/cable duopoly -- fails when it comes to deployment of broadband infrastructure, resulting in uneven distribution where some neighborhoods have broadband access while others don't:

To be sure, the conservative faith in markets is amply justified in many areas where consumer choice leads to the best outcomes. No one is calling for a national iPod policy or for tax subsidies on Blu-Ray DVD players, for the good reason that these are consumer items that the market best allocates.

But broadband is different: market failures lead to it being undersupplied. The principle market failure is that the provision of broadband involves what economists call "positive externalities."

For example, the fastest broadband connections simultaneously support a host of digital video, voice, and data applications, like telemedicine. Yet the success of these applications is hindered by a classic "chicken or egg" dilemma: they will not develop without a market of high-speed broadband subscribers, but consumers need these applications as a lure to enter the high-speed broadband market in the first place.

So yes, conservatives are right. Proactive policies and incentives for more broadband might "distort" the market. But they are wrong in saying that this distortion would outweigh the benefits. In fact, the innovation and productivity spurred by more and faster broadband is likely to vastly exceed any minor losses from "misallocation" of economic resources.

Broadband has become the 21st century equivalent of a "chicken in every pot." Everyone is in favor it. But the real issue is not whether broadband is good and more is better, but whether the market alone will provide the right amount of it anytime soon. The OECD numbers suggest that we can do better. Now it's up to us to do so. We can start by crafting and implementing a proactive national broadband policy.

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