Time to reset the game clock on the National Broadband Plan.
The plan, due to be presented to Congress next month, now looks to be delayed by a month. Like a tardy student going to a professor, the FCC has written Congress to ask for a four-week extension on its “big paper.” Perhaps the agency can use the extra time to ensure the plan contains some of that “change” we’ve heard so much about.
In December, we were given a sneak peak at the plan-in-progress. While interesting, it was also underwhelming.
Broadband plans in other countries have done things like aim for 1Gbps connections by 2015 (Japan), separate last-mile copper and fiber networks from backend networks and open them to all competitors (UK), and even build an open access national fiber network (Australia). The US, in contrast, looks ready to find and auction off some extra wireless spectrum in five years or so; it might also require rural telcos taking universal service money to provide low-speed broadband to all their lines. Oh, and some people might get Internet access on their TV sets.
The policies we’ve seen so far look good, and the FCC has had an impressive team working on the issue for nearly a year now, but the final result looks a lot like “tinkering around the edges” rather than doing something truly game-changing. The FCC commissioned a major report from Harvard researchers on world broadband markets, and that report made essentially one recommendation: mandate line-sharing rules to provide real competition. But it’s not in the plan.
The Department of Commerce also weighed in this week, telling the FCC that US broadband was generally a duopoly, that wireless really wouldn’t be a replacement for wireline networks, and that providing more spectrum wouldn’t fix the competitive situation.
Everyone’s calling for bold action on broadband, even Republicans like Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX). In an op-ed this week, Hutchison demanded a “daring, comprehensive” plan. What was her main idea for such a plan? Additional wireless spectrum.
The FCC continues to insist it will deliver something solid. “Gaps” in US broadband access will be addressed “boldly,” said FCC Chair Julius Genachowski this week. Extending coverage to all is a good thing. Opening up spectrum, especially to unlicensed use (which brought us WiFi and now White Space Devices) is a good thing. But nothing coming from the FCC looks likely to push US ISPs to be truly awesome on the world stage (see our piece on incredible ISPs around the world, and take a look at the service they are already providing before you say it can’t be done here).
ISPs like France’s Free.fr already offer ADSL connections of up to 28Mbps that provide TV, Internet, and phone service for €29.99, showing just how much can really be done by the right kind of competition. Meanwhile, Americans can pay $35/month for 6Mbps Internet-only DSL connections with customer service like this.
The FCC’s point man for broadband, Blair Levin, has essentially ruled out line-sharing already, and he’s also right that just “thinking big” without having a plan to get there is ineffective. And yes, some of the high speeds advertised in other countries can’t be obtained in reality. But a look round the world shows that broadband can at least be done better, it can certainly be done cheaper, and success is often a function of the regulatory environment. That doesn’t mean government-run broadband; it just means that the ground rules truly encourage competition, the sort of competition that both the Department of Commerce and the Department of Justice don’t currently see in the market.
We’ll reserve final judgment on the FCC’s efforts until March, when the National Broadband Plan is revealed in its full splendor. But we’re skeptical that a few more weeks will lead the agency to think any bigger. When JFK announced that the US would race for the moon, he said we would pursue moon landings “not only because they are easy, but because they are hard.” When it comes to broadband, it looks like we’ll be doing a host of good—but pretty easy—things.