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Our National Broadband Plan is a Two-Year-Old Dunce
FCC Ignored Competitive Problems to Focus on Adoption, And Failed
by Karl Bode 12:52PM Wednesday Mar 21 2012
Just about two years ago the FCC introduced our first ever national broadband plan. While designed to appear comprehensive and ambitious, I noted at the time that beyond the chocolate-flavored exterior lay a very hollow project. Completely ignoring their own data on open access and the broadband sector's biggest problem (a lack of competition), the FCC focused on ramping up adoption (read: helping ISPs sell more service). To do this they simply piggybacked on a series of already-existing industry efforts, most of which are little more than glorified, taxpayer subsidized ads for cable. Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Last year chief plan architect Blair Levin, now in think tank life, acknowledged the plan had "errors" but still failed to acknowledge the biggest one: that the agency ignored competition and thereby ignored how the FCC's own data suggested than open access policies drive down prices, reduce idiotic neutrality-violating behavior by carriers, improve service and drive carrier upgrades. Nobody thinks implementing such policies (like coordinating open access private-public networks in uncompetitive and under-served markets) would be easy -- but the fact competition is never seriously mentioned by Levin speaks volumes about the plan and his vision of the market.

So 36 public workshops, 9 field hearings, 31 public notices and 376 pages later we were stuck with a show pony of a national broadband plan where adoption was supposedly the primary focus so therefore we should have seen a significant surge in adoption, right? Not so much. A new Technet study (pdf) finds that broadband adoption has seen only modest gains. FCC data suggests 65% of U.S. residents had broadband at home in 2009, a number the NTIA estimates was just 68% in 2011 -- about the growth you'd expect to see doing nothing. What's more, the study claims nobody really has any idea who is doing what and what plans are working:
Since the National Broadband Plan was delivered to Congress two years ago, the government and private sector have worked together to buttress an emerging policy infrastructure to support broadband adoption. "is is good news, as far as it goes. But so far these efforts have suffered from insufficient coordination and a lack of clear strategy for assessing outcomes. Unless policymakers and private sector stakeholders take action to improve our understanding of these initiatives, we will be both flying blind when it comes to knowing what works and also risking second class status for the U.S. broadband ecosystem.
There's "insufficient outcomes" and limited strategy because the national broadband plan was designed by career politicians and was more showmanship than substance. The FCC knew that by simply waiting -- they'd see some spike in adoption rates and therefore could vaguely claim a political success without upsetting powerful constituents like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast with policies designed to help drive additional competition into the United State's plethora of stagnant broadband markets.

While it's certainly true many don't want broadband, many simply can't afford broadband -- and that's thanks to a lack of competition. Monopolies and duopolies facing no competition are jacking up prices and keeping many communities from seeing necessary upgrades and lower costs, and it's something the FCC has shown time and time again they lack the insight or courage to do anything about. Worse perhaps, those same monopolies are going state by state banning locals from wiring themselves when nobody else will.

How dedicated to broadband improvement are you really -- when you think it's ok to allow uncompetitive giants with sub-par product to write awful telecom laws protecting their fiefdoms from the faintest hint of competition?

United States broadband is a broken, uncompetitive market suffering from regulatory capture -- and nobody (and neither party) really wants to fix it. Instead, we get lip service by companies professing to love deregulation and free markets while passing protectionist regulations to keep the market uncompetitive. We also get timid regulators too petrified of upsetting deep-pocketed constituents and zealous partisans to take bold action. The result is nonsensical showmanship and superficial debate while millions of people pay $60 a month for 3 Mbps DSL that won't be upgraded anytime in the next decade.

On the plus side, as part of the plan we did get a $300 million broadband map that completely fails to accurately map broadband speed, availability or price.

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