Tomorrow's USA: Super Competitive with Yesterday's Australia.

I'll admit to being surprised at the warm reception that greeted the National Broadband Plan's arrival. There are grumblings that the Federal Communications Commission kinda snookered the press reaction by releasing an executive summary that seemed ambitious and provocative, coloring initial reactions to the report itself. But once you dig into the policy details of the report, it becomes clear that what the authors delivered to Congress doesn't have the comprehensiveness or ambition to really give America the broadband boost it badly needs. Check out this chart, for example, showing how the U.S.' new target for universal availability of broadband by 2020 compares around the world:

The report praises a 4Mbps download goal as "aggressive" and "one of the highest universalization targets of any country in the world." But a couple things complicate matters. First, and this one's a biggie, is that if you check the date column of the chart you'll notice that the U.S. goal is for a decade from now. South Korea's, for example, is for two years ago. It was a goal set years before that. The monstrous footnote that the FCC included along with that chart actually reveals that South Korea's new target is for 95 percent of households to have 50Mbps links by 2013. More than 10 times faster, and five years earlier. The National Broadband Plan puts the U.S. in good stead to compete with the UK in 2020, just as long as Britain remains in suspended animation until then.

But the problem isn't even the goals. The problems run throughout the report. The big, big missing element is competition, which is hardly mentioned in the report. If this was the Bush FCC, that would have been expected. But from the Obama FCC, it's disappointing. The lack of competition in the American broadband market makes broadband both slower and more expensive. And yet, as one person deeply involved in the field said with a bit of snark, "We have a National Broadband Plan that never even uses the words 'monopoly' or 'duopoly.'"

I'm loathe to disparage the hard work of the people behind the report, but Congress gave the FCC a mandate to drool over. They asked them to come up with a comprehensive, ambitious vision for connecting America for years to come. What came back to them reads like a consultant's 300-page collection of best practices everyone agrees on, a sprinkling of good ideas, and a bunch of catchphrases like "100 Squared" (100 Mbps in 100 million homes) that come across as if they were snuck in at the last minute to spice things up and give the press something to write about. There have been high hopes for this FCC because of chair Julius Genachowski's work as the Obama campaign's tech guru. But this is an incredibly politically safe document, designed to offend no one. Except maybe me.

The National Broadband Plan was a missed opportunity. I still don't know why we don't hear more people saying it.

--Nancy Scola

You may also like