What Is the State of U.S. Broadband? What Should Obama Do About It?


I've already written that I'm not terribly optimistic that broadband will be a short- or medium-term priority for the Obama presidency. There is just too much to do. That's too bad, because reports say that our nation's broadband infrastructure is falling further behind those of other nations.

There is another side of the coin, and one that isn't so negative. This post is written by a person who lives in Jacksonville, Fla. It's a medium-size city (the twelfth largest in the country with 805,000 residents). Not Hicksville -- but not LA or Chicago.

People in Jacksonville have a choice of three broadband providers: Clearwire offers 2 Megabit per second (Mbps), BellSouth offers 6 Mbps digital subscriber line (DSL) service and Comcast also offers service at 6 Mbps with burst capacity. That's pretty good, and doesn't even count phone company fiber builds that cover an ever-larger percentage of the country. The blogger says that he switched from BellSouth to Clearwire, which he doesn't like, and finally to Comcast.

So is competition and the better and cheaper offerings it brings spreading, or is the nation's infrastructure antiquated and slow? There are, after all, plenty of stories that point out that competition is making the U.S. broadband infrastructure more robust. For instance, this Houston Chronicle piece says that 100,000 households in Houston now get their television service from AT&T. The story notes that that is "still a fraction" of the three-quarters of a million subscribers served by Comcast. The point is, however, that signing that many customers clearly shows that the telco is a player in the market.

This also can keep costs down. The danger cable companies are running when they raise their rates is a subtext of this angry release from an organization called TV4US detailing unhappiness with Comcast's 6 percent rate hike in Virginia, the second time this year that the operator has increased its prices. The writer runs through the list of areas that have a competitive provider in place.

The big question is what role the government will take going forward. Look for nothing to happen for a while as the administrations change. The last gasp of the Bush administration's active oversight of telecom policy occurred on Election Day, when Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin pulled a vote that could have simplified and reduced the cost of interconnection procedures that the incumbent telephone companies must follow.

The postponement-which will end consideration of the matter until new administrators settle in-doesn't appear to increase competition. But the half full/half empty theme continues: At the same meeting, the FCC approved the use of white space for wireless transmissions. This is designed to make more broadband bandwidth available to carriers and service providers and, ultimately, benefit end users.

New administrations have to make fundamental decisions on how much overt control they exercise. A driver of Obama's near landslide was the desire for government to intervene where needed. Terrifying market crashes due to lack of adequate regulation tend to have that effect. The question in telecommunications will be whether the new FCC will listen more to studies saying that our broadband infrastructure is falling hopelessly behind or reports from the field reporting burgeoning competition and lower prices.

Perhaps a middle course-not monkeying in areas where competition has taken root and setting a minimum capacity for areas less likely to attract multiple competitors-will emerge.