Tech Eeyores Should Not Guide U.S. Broadband Policy

by Mike Wendy on March 18, 2013

Most Americans go about their busy day un-tethered to a desktop PC and fixed broadband line. If we need information from the Internet while on the go, a mobile device, such as a smartphone or a tablet computer, have become our go-to tools to help us out.

According to the FCC, America has 142 million mobile Internet connections compared with 88 million fixed-location connections.  Enabling these mobile connections, Pew estimates that 45% of American adults have a smartphone (at ~104 million), and 31% have tablets (at ~ 72 million).

As the FCC notes, “growth is particularly high in mobile Internet subscriptions.”  A recent PC Magazine article suggests this may be due to “mobile-focused consumers looking to fulfill their needs with a smartphone or tablet rather than a desktop computer or even a laptop.”  Desktops and laptops tend to demand a fixed-location connection to access the Internet, whereas smartphones and tablets do not.

About those mobile-focused consumers. This apparent shift should have important implications for the pro-consumer growth of U.S. broadband services.  As the market seems to be telling us – there’re substitutes to fixed broadband.  Powerful ones, with more coming down the pike all the time (such as LTE advanced).  Consequently, this dynamism will push the marketplace – all providers – toward new and competitive ways to offer broadband to consumers.

Where markets are dynamic and competition thrives, the need for regulation should remain low, giving consumer-oriented innovation a better chance of flourishing.

Or, one would think.

Enter controversial Internet activist and ex-Obama official, Susan CrawfordThrough her new writings, she has re-emerged as an outspoken advocate of outdated 19th Century ideologies to guide the development of our 21st Century communications infrastructure.

In her pessimistic view, our broadband marketplace is broken, with Americans getting anemic services at exorbitant prices.   That’s because cartels of “evil,” profit-minded corporations have no incentive to give us what we “truly need” for a “better,” more “fair” society.

Not surprisingly, Crawford pooh-poohs wireless broadband, believing smartphones and tablets are no substitutes to PC’s connected to fixed-location broadband services.  As a result, she stridently calls for the government-driven spread of taxpayer-supported, “future proof” wired gigabit networks as one way (among a phalanx of other 19th Century mandates) to rectify our broadband “crisis.”

Amazingly, her anti-market suggestions haven’t just evaporated into the ether like so much other hot air.  The FCC seemingly agrees, and has itself gotten in on the gigabit “vision” thing, too.

In January, FCC Chairman, Julius Genachowski, issued a Gigabit City Challenge, calling for the creation of at least one wired, gigabit network in each state before 2015.  In February, he doubled down on that by giving a rare, perhaps even unusual, warning to state legislators, hectoring them to avoid interfering with the development of taxpayer-supported broadband networks (such as those that could be gigabit enabled) if local residents approved them.

Now, I could go on and on about how government-subsidized gigabit networks harm the marketplace and local citizens.  But I won’t.  It’s beside the point.  Rather, what’s really disturbing here is that the FCC’s Gigabit City Challenge and other pro-regulatory actions (like Net Neutrality) are emblematic of a larger problem.  They start from the assumption that the market is broken.  And worse yet, even when things are good – which they are – market control through regulation is somehow always required.

It’s a sort of heads-they-win, tails-the-marketplace-loses scenario that can only ever lead to “market fixing” mandates and proscriptions.

That’s because Crawford and our agency “leaders” now in Washington are essentially tech Eeyore’s, ceaselessly bemoaning their belief that what’s getting produced in the marketplace “will never work.”  That only their ideas of what’s “future proof” is what matters, and the market be damned!

But wait a minute! If Crawford and her ilk can’t / won’t see that wireless broadband is an important substitute to fixed-location broadband, what else can’t / won’t they see?  I mean, why should we trust their 19th Century “vision” when the marketplace seems to show otherwise?

The answer is, we shouldn’t.

Quite simply, U.S. broadband is an American success story.  15 years of largely unabated, private investment has allowed Internet access to reach over 98% of America. In more than 85% of the U.S. we have at least two wireline, facilities-based providers of broadband.  And, there are at least four “national” facilities-based wireless carriers for consumers to choose from.  Moreover, there are numerous ways to access the Internet via broadband facilities, such as DSL, 3G, 4G, cable, cable-fiber hybrid, FiOS, broadband over powerline, WISPs, wi-fi and satellite.

This growth – fostered by less 19th Century regulation, not more of it – continues to improve to the benefit of consumers and society.

We should ignore the sad ruminations of the tech Eeyores currently in power and heed the market’s guidance instead.  It has a far greater chance of sustainably boosting consumer and societal welfare than outdated, 19th Century thinking, the latter of which would tether our progress to a fixed-location – the past – rather than onward.

Tech Eeyores may be fine for Winnie-the-Pooh’s world on Hundred Acre Wood.  But out in the real world, their “answers” are about as solidly attached as Eeyore’s oft-errant tail.

Such child’s fantasy should not guide U.S. broadband policy.

Brett Glass March 18, 2013 at 7:59 pm

” If Crawford and her ilk can’t / won’t see that wireless broadband is an important substitute to fixed-location broadband…”

FYI: mobile is not the only type of wireless broadband. My company provides fixed wireless broadband with reliability and latency superior to that of fiber.

John Lamica May 18, 2013 at 2:56 am

You sir ought to be ashamed of yourself for telling such a blatant lie. NOTHING in the universe is superior to the 100mps upload AND download speeds of fiber. (Note the period at the end) As for the author of this story, I would like to see you walk a day in my shoes and then hear you say that American telecommunications infrastructure isnt broken. I live on a road with 31 homes Within one mile of me and we are 2 miles from Time Warners last service drop. They are never ever going to service us. As for your “powerful substitute” wireless …. HA ROFL just about all of us tried using mifi and such and hardly ever see speeds over 56k. BROKEN. Two broadband providers? We have none. And everywhere around me in upstate NY only had one; Time Warner. Thats called a monopoly. And it’s goung to stay like that until the government steps in for us. I dont want to argue politics with anybody so save it. My son is going into the sixth grade and he’ll have

Mike Wendy March 18, 2013 at 8:07 pm

I guess I could have said “mobile” broadband, but I think the point still comes across.

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