Friday, February 03, 2017

FCC’s O’Reilly defends unacceptable status quo in U.S. telecom infrastructure

As federal policymakers consider addressing America’s telecommunications infrastructure deficit as part of a broad national infrastructure modernization plan, Federal Communications Commissioner Michael O’Reilly has written a blog post clearly intended to lower expectations and preserve an unacceptable status quo. It comes at a time when the United States by 2010 should have had modern, fiber optic-based telecommunications infrastructure deployed serving every home, small businesses and public institution instead of the legacy metallic telephone and cable company infrastructure he wants to preserve. Not to mention the national embarrassment of third world satellite Internet and dialup serving too many American homes where landline telecom connections – metallic or fiber – are nonexistent.

Instead of a robust federal telecommunications infrastructure program, O’Reilly seeks to protect the incumbent telephone and cable companies by preserving their emphasis on “broadband speeds” and the related and increasingly outdated, tail chasing debate over how much speed is sufficient. That fits nicely with the legacy incumbents’ outdated metal cable connections to premises since those lack the capacity of fiber to serve burgeoning bandwidth demand. In his points about geography and population density, O’Reilly also lends support to incumbents’ redlining market practices based on premise density in violation of the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet rulemaking making Internet a universally available common carrier telecommunications utility. That speed-based versus fiber to the premise (FTTP) metric comports with the FCC’s weak subsidy program that funds incumbents’ deployment of obsolete infrastructure on a par with circa 2005 DSL.

In sum, O’Reilly’s position is all about incrementalism and buying more time for these legacy incumbent providers. Public policymakers have already allowed them to buy a quarter century of delay as American has fallen ever further behind in the 21st century, when modern telecommunications infrastructure is as critical as roads and highway were in the previous century. It’s time for that to end.

Finally, O’Reilly -- like former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler before him --miscasts telecommunications infrastructure as a competitive market. If it were, there would be lots of service providers to choose from and sufficient capital to finance their ventures. The fact that there are not reflects simple microeconomics. High cost endeavors like infrastructure erect natural barriers to new providers. In telecommunications infrastructure, incumbents also exert a chilling effect with their natural monopolies since new providers are reluctant to take on the risk of overbuilding them – a primary reason for Google Fiber’s recent retrenchment.

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