Friday, October 19, 2007

Why competition suffers in the broadband market

One of the biggest debates is over how much broadband telecommunications should be regulated. That debate is in turn fueled by another over the fundamental nature of the market. Is it a competitive market and will competitive pressures force the market to provide broadband to those who want it at reasonable prices? Or is it an uncompetitive market as Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, described it at a conference today in San Francisco.

Atkinson like your blogger and many other observers tend to see it as a monopoly or duopoly with broadband provided by just a telco, a cable company or in all too many cases, neither, leading to the formation of broadband black holes stretching across the landscape. The reason, Atkinson explains, is the high cost of becoming broadband provider and deploying the necessary infrastructure.

Atkinson's right. By way of illustration, if another high cost infrastructure such as roads and highways was left to private market providers who would charge tolls for access, there would only be a small number of road builders and plenty of places where roads -- like broadband -- don't go. That's why roads in the vast majority of places are provided by the public sector.

Despite the substantial financial heft of the big telcos and cable companies and their ability to raise money on Wall Street, they simply can't put up the money themselves to build out their infrastructures to provide broadband to nearly every one who wants it. They'd have to take on billions more of bond debt and sacrifice near term earnings --something their investors wouldn't tolerate.

Increasingly, it appears only a partnership of both the private and public sectors can eliminate America's numerous broadband black holes and close the digital divide.

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