The First Step is Acceptance.

Maybe it's wishful thinking, but there are signs that we're starting to see a questioning of the consensus that the national broadband plan released by the Federal Communications Commission last week was all that it could have been. I've argued that the plan does little to encourage competition. And without competition in broadband, it's pretty unclear how you (a) drive up adoption rates in places where people aren't connected and (b) drive down prices that are keeping people from buying broadband. Harvard Law professor Yochai Benkler argued that the plan is flawed in an op-ed this Sunday in The New York Times:

The Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan, announced last week, is aimed at providing nearly universal, affordable broadband service by 2020. And while it takes many admirable steps -- including very important efforts toward opening space in the broadcast spectrum -- it does not address the source of the access problem: without a major policy shift to increase competition, broadband service in the United States will continue to lag far behind the rest of the developed world.

But then, Benkler wrote a plan -- commissioned but ignored by the FCC -- that would have opened up AT&T-owned backhaul to competing ISPs, so it's not surprising for him to say the above. But consider this nugget:

Unfortunately, though, senior commission staff members have essentially conceded in interviews that lobbying pressure from the monopolies is too strong even to begin exploring open access right now.

I've heard similar comments. The FCC's broadband team might have felt constrained by what insiders say was a historic shock-and-awe campaign from the telecoms against competition. They might have backed off of considering what-could-be as a result. But advocates for making cheaper broadband available to a greater percentage of Americans aren't similarly constrained.

So let's say it. The broadband plan we got last week doesn't say much about municipal ISPs. Or leveraging public resources to lower the capital investment of a network rollout. Or using government credit ratings to subsidize smaller Internet providers. Or any of the other creative ideas that would actually change the way broadband is provisioned in the United States. Pretending it does only wastes more time.

--Nancy Scola

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