Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Administration’s “broadband” push window dressing

Always something happening and nothing going on
There's always something cooking and nothing in the pot

-- John Lennon, Nobody Told Me

The Obama administration’s PR initiative this week on U.S. telecommunications infrastructure deficiencies is largely window dressing and will likely mean the wired network that Americans have today for their home and small business Internet connection is likely the same one they’ll have for the foreseeable. This prediction was made in 2012 by former U.S Federal Communications Commission official Blair Levin and continues to hold true in 2015:

"For the first time since American ingenuity birthed the commercial Internet, we do not have a single national wireline provider with plans (real plans, not “fiber to the press release”) to deploy a better network. For most Americans, five years from now, the best network available to them will be the same network they have today."

The reason is the same as in 2012: insufficient available capital. Building Internet infrastructure to serve homes and businesses is a high cost endeavor. Those high costs have produced market failure on the supply side as the administration acknowledges, noting in this fact sheet that three of four Americans lack networks providing a level of service increasingly required for many online services. “Rarely is the problem a lack of demand — too often, it is the capital costs of building out broadband infrastructure…”

The administration is correct that local governments will have to play a major role in meeting the Internet infrastructure needs of their residents, infrastructure many argue is as critical in the 21st century as roads and highways were in the 20th. But it has no meaningful plan to help these localities finance infrastructure construction beyond highly limited and restricted funding available through existing grant and loan programs directed to rural areas of the nation that are only a drop in the bucket relative to the many billions of dollars needed.

In fairness to the administration, even it if did have a plan, it would face difficult odds getting Congress to appropriate the necessary funding. That has left the administration with little to offer in the way of tangible economic assistance. The administration is relaunching its BroadbandUSA website, where among other things it will offer “funding leads” for financing infrastructure construction. Given the lack of needed dollars, the administration has also been reduced to talking points that unfortunately won’t do anything to build last mile fiber to the premise infrastructure including:
  • Increasing “competition.” (Sounds great, but ignores the fact that telecommunications infrastructure is a natural monopoly, not a competitive consumer market like groceries, vehicles and air travel. It also undermines Obama's position that Internet should be regulated under Title II telecommunications common carrier rules that are predicated on a monopoly market.)
  • Enforcing “net neutrality” rules on Internet service providers. (A wonky term that doesn’t mean anything to consumers with subpar or no wired Internet service options).

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