America’s broadband problem: we need a commons

Yochai Benkler has an interesting op-ed piece in the NY Times on the recent FCC plan to widen U.S. Internet access.  As Benkler describes it

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.

According to Benkler,  for $33 per month a month a French consumer can get:  high speed Internet service (twice as fast as ours) plus digital high-definition television plus  unlimited long distance and international calling plus wireless Internet connectivity for your laptop or smartphone.   Not bad.  What does $33 get you here in the U.S.?   It doesn’t even cover the mediocre Internet service we get.

‘Mediocre’ is the right word to describe the current U.S. broadband service when compared with other developed countries. We’re definitely middle-of-the-pack on both penetration (access) and speed.  Here are a couple of graphs from Next Generation Connectivity: A review of broadband Internet transitions and policy from around the world, an FCC-commissioned study by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.  The first graph shows penetration:

Broadband Penetration Rates

The second graph shows average and advertised download speeds:


Right.  Mediocre.

And, unless we change our approach to broadband, it’s not going to improve.  The problem is the lack of open access to the cables that make up the network. As Benkler points out:

Last year my colleagues and I did a study for the Federal Communications Commission showing that a significant reason that other countries had managed to both expand access and lower rates over the last decade was a commitment to open-access policies, requiring companies that build networks to sell access to rivals that then invest in, and compete on, the network.

This reminds me of something Lawrence Lessig said about the relationship between private property and the commons.  Broadband cables are like highways and should be part of the commons. And maybe, like streets and highways they should be owned and managed by governments for the public good.  I can’t imagine paying a toll to some private corporation in order to drive down my street.  The private corporation only cares about its stockholders, not the public good.   If we are going to let private companies lay the cable in this country, then we should insure that the cable they lay, like the roads, are open to everyone equally.

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