Can the FCC fix America's crummy broadband network?

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March 22 2010 5:25 PM

Land of the Free, Home of Slow Internet

Can the FCC fix America's crummy broadband network?

Also in Slate, Chris Wilson questioned the wisdom of bringing high-speed Internet access to rural America.

Computer modem cable.
The future depends on broadband

The FCC's new National Broadband Plan is huge. That's true physically—at 360 pages, you'll need a fast Internet connection just to get the PDF —and as a matter of scope. The plan, released last week, sketches out a decade's worth of improvements to the nation's infrastructure that will transform how we get our news, entertainment, and phone service, and will improve pretty much every technology you own.

As Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, sees it, wiring the nation for superfast Internet connections will be as significant as setting up the national electricity grid 100 years ago. That's because the Internet, like electricity, is a foundational technology—it sits beneath a wide range of innovations, some that we can envision today and many we can't. "All text, all audio, all video is going to go over IP networks—why shouldn't it?" Genachowski told me in an interview. "Getting a universal electric grid rolled out all over the country led to a century's worth of new appliances. What we're starting to see now is a new generation of innovation, and instead of appliances it will be applications," Genachowski said. If we can just fix American broadband, he added, "the U.S. can lead in the creation and manufacturing of those applications."

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But can we fix broadband? I've explained the shortcomings of America's Internet infrastructure many times—compared with our economic rivals, our Internet lines are generally slower, more expensive, and cover less of the country. The broadband plan's central goal is to make the United States the world's best-connected nation. It does not call for a significant taxpayer-funded investment in these new networks; instead, it outlines a series of rules and incentives to push the telecom industry to improve American broadband. By 2020, if this all comes to pass, 100 million households will have access to an "affordable" Internet connection with download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second (the average connection speed in the United States today is around 4 megabits per second). The plan also calls for schools, hospitals, and other community institutions to have broadband lines of 1 gigabit per second, and for the country to have the world's "fastest and most extensive" wireless Internet service, too.

These are huge goals, and I'd love for all of them to come true. Yet I am a bit skeptical that they're achievable, for a few reasons. First, there's the standard disclaimer that applies to all efforts to remake national infrastructure: Politics will get in the way. At this point, the broadband plan is simply a draft; Congress has to pass legislation for many of the plan's recommendations to take effect, and lobbyists from the cable, phone, and entertainment industries are sure to play a big role in that process.

Everyone who studies communications policy understands that there is one main way to improve the speed and reduce the price of Internet lines: Foster more competition between broadband companies. Today most Americans can choose between just two Internet providers—your phone company or your cable company. This is a recipe for stasis. Because we're pretty much trapped, neither provider has much incentive to create faster, cheaper lines. Can the FCC really do anything to improve that picture?

When I asked Genachowski about competition in broadband, he described a few major policies outlined in the plan. First, the FCC wants to educate people about the inadequacy of their current broadband lines. The agency has found that most Internet plans don't live up to the upload and download speeds they claim to deliver. Under the plan, the FCC would set up a regime to monitor the actual speeds of Internet lines; then it will show us a kind of broadband nutrition label when we go to select a new plan. The label would tell you how fast a line you're actually getting and would also explain what you could do on that plan. "It might say something like, For a YouTube video to work in small box without buffering, you'll need this speed, but for full-screen high definition video, you'll need this speed," Genachowski explained. These consumer labels, the FCC says, will have the same impact on broadband that miles-per-gallon disclosures had on the car industry—they allowed customers to seek out more efficient cars and in turn pushed car companies to emphasize efficiency.