Government Report Declares Broadband An Essential, Uncompetitive Utility, Wistfully Ponders If Perhaps We Should Do Something About It

from the bureaucratic-prattle dept

For years players in the telecom sector have bickered over whether or not to call broadband an essential utility (water, electricity), or keep on acting as if it's simply a luxury. A semantic battle for sure, though ISPs have traditionally fought the former classification because it generally means regulators actually doing their jobs, like checking to make sure that ISP broadband usage meters are accurate (helpful tip: they often aren't and regulators couldn't care less). Also if you declare broadband a necessary utility, that means somebody has to do something about the fact that the lion's share of the country remains on sluggish, last-generation speeds thanks to limited to no real competition.

In an otherwise rather droll report this week, the United States government stopped beating around the bush and formally declared broadband an essential utility. The full report by the government's new "broadband opportunity council" (pdf) is the latest hang-wringing, bureaucratic effort to study the broadband sector to death, despite the fact that even the nation's sixth graders likely know the core problem with the broadband industry is duopoly power and regulatory capture. The report, after consulting "248 diverse stakeholders" ranging from telecom companies to consumer advocacy groups, shockingly concludes that the government hasn't been acting in accordance with this new reality:
"Broadband has steadily shifted from an optional amenity to a core utility for households, businesses and community institutions. Today, broadband is taking its place alongside water, sewer and electricity as essential infrastructure for communities. However, not all Federal programs fully reflect the changing social, economic and technological conditions that redefined the need for and benefits of broadband. In some cases, programs that can support broadband deployment and adoption lack specific guidelines to promote its use. Other programs have not integrated funding for broadband commensurate with its importance and role in program execution and mission.
Gosh, are we daring to suggest that blindly throwing subsidies at AT&T and Verizon, ignoring how that money gets spent, and then turning a blind eye to the lack of last-mile competition hasn't really been working? While previous, pricey government brainstorming sessions comically turned a blind eye to the lack of competition (our bland, politically-timid 2010 National Broadband Plan jumps immediately to mind), this latest report by the freshly-forged council at least acknowledges the reality on the ground:
"Today, nearly 40 percent of American households either do not have the option of purchasing a wired 10 Mbps connection or they must buy it from a single provider. Three out of four Americans do not have a choice of providers for broadband at 25 Mbps, the speed increasingly recognized as a baseline for broadband access. Lowering barriers to deployment and fostering market competition can drive down price, increase speeds, and improve service and adoption rates across all markets.
The report proceeds to give a number of no brainer recommendations, like paying attention to where taxpayer subsidies go (ingenious!), removing ISP-written state laws preventing communities from improving local broadband when nobody else will (insightful!), and actually basing policy on real-world evidence instead of simply playing partisan patty cake (pioneering!). Of course these are all things that should have been obvious for the last fifteen years; government was just too terrified of upsetting deep-pocketed campaign contributors (and NSA partners) like AT&T and Comcast to actually make meaningful progress.

Hopefully in another five years we can look forward to a new report that realizes that if you want better broadband, perhaps you shouldn't let the nation's duopoly providers write all of our telecom laws, all-but own state legislatures and Congress, and effectively act as institutionally-bone-grafted government intelligence analysts?
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Filed Under: broadband, competition, government


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  • identicon
    The bus, 25 Sep 2015 @ 10:51am

    The wheels on the bus

    The wheels move slowly, very slowly, as they go round and round..

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Stu, 25 Sep 2015 @ 10:54am

    Broadband coverage...Ha

    I live in US FL zip code 33876, in a city of 10k (within city limits anyway, up to 40k in surrounding area which is where I am) in a county with a pop of 98k.

    The best offered to me is 1 DSL provider with 3MB (Centurylink), 2 DSL providers between 512k to 2 MB (local company's who most likely lease lines from Century I imagin), and 0 cable internet providers. Our county cable operator is Comcast and they refuse to wire my area which is about 8 miles outside of town, where they offer 50-100mb.

    US Broadband is a joke.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      JoeCool (profile), 25 Sep 2015 @ 12:18pm

      Re: Broadband coverage...Ha

      I live in a city of 40k with more than 100k passing through every year. There is one DSL provider (CenturyLink) with only two options: 1.5M (which I have), and 5M (which is only available in a small part of the city). There is one wireless provider who offers "up-to" 10M, but no idea how it really performs without actually committing to five years of service. There's no choice for anything faster. We don't even have 4G here - 3G just got installed last year.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Sep 2015 @ 11:29am

    "Nah..." -The Goverment

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    mcinsand, 25 Sep 2015 @ 11:33am

    how our government handles essential utilities

    I wasn't scared of having broadband declared as an essential utility until I read this article and, no, I am not trolling.

    >>For years players in the telecom sector have bickered
    >>over whether or not to call broadband an essential
    >>utility (water, electricity),
    ...
    >>thanks to limited to no real competition.

    I would not say that there is actual competition in the ISP market where I live. There is a duopoly, and I can choose cable from A or DSL from B.

    HOWEVER...I have absolutely no choice for electricity or water. If our government decides to handle broadband as an essential utility, I certainly hope that they will not take us from a duopoly to a monopoly, as we face with electricity and water.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      JoeCool (profile), 25 Sep 2015 @ 12:23pm

      Re: how our government handles essential utilities

      While you have no choice in water or electricity, at least you GET THEM, and at a price you can live with. As a non-utility, the duopolists feel free to ignore large sections of the country because they can, and jack the prices up ever higher, again, because they can. Even if there was a provider of a 25M connection in my city, I couldn't afford it given the current broadband provider pricing.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Sep 2015 @ 12:03pm

    what is there to debate about? of course it's an 'essential service' for christ's sake! 90% at least of school children would be unable to complete any lessons and homework without the 'net! and it's no good arguing that they could go to libraries! there isn't enough of them and definitely not enough 'up to date' computers in any of them! and the teachers rely on them to produce lessons and homework tasks too! then consider the way that just about every tech company is heading, trying to get everything done over the 'net, including telling when an item is about to run out to automatically ordering the weekly shop!
    how the hell can it not be essential? just because most of Congress cant use the machines, doesn't mean they're not essential! just that they need to be taught. but, sorry, they're need needed enough!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 Sep 2015 @ 1:38pm

      Re:

      just because most of Congress cant use the machines

      Politicians much prefer working face to face, as it does not leave any records behind, giving
      plausible deniability about what was discussed or decided.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Glenn, 25 Sep 2015 @ 1:14pm

    Most people who use the Internet perform some "essential" tasks, like paying bills. However, connection speed is mostly irrelevant for essential tasks. The problem for many is that they can no longer find "cheap" and "slow" essential service. ISPs overprice every tier they offer. Comcast's Essentials package is notoriously hard to qualify for (by design).

    Almost no individual ever needs more than 10mbps. Some residences with more than a few people living there might need more than 25mbps on occasion, but the high speed being foisted on customers (along with high prices) are largely unnecessary. They just represent the same old networks updated with current technology (which is actually pretty cheap now).

    So, forget the speed--it's not an issue. Price is the only issue, and service these days is priced solely for ISPs to gouge their customers... because they can.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 Sep 2015 @ 1:23pm

      Re:

      Speed is also a factor if you are reliant on the Internet for everyday shopping etc. due to the images and scripts that have to be downloaded for each page, as is having a reliable connection, especially when you have to login to shop.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Derek Kerton (profile), 25 Sep 2015 @ 1:30pm

    This Part Is Not Exactly True:

    "the fact that the lion's share of the country remains on sluggish, last-generation speeds thanks to limited to no real competition. "

    Not really. MOST of the country remains sluggish because they are an economically unattractive target for incumbent or new ISPs. That is the underlying reasons why there is no competition for their business.

    Now, where the population is dense, speeds are also sluggish because of a lack of competition, which in that case is because of protectionist, anti-competitive business processes and regulations.

    The story of US broadband is really two very different stories: one rural and the other urban.

    Similarly, while Starbucks is on every corner in towns, there are no adequate choices for coffee in Chloride City, California
    https://www.google.com/maps/place/Chloride+City,+CA+92328
    ...but I think we should chalk the cause up to lack of population density and addressable market, not the resulting lack of competition.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      orbitalinsertion (profile), 25 Sep 2015 @ 5:06pm

      Re: This Part Is Not Exactly True:

      Excepting that the telcos, and later the ISPs, have been receiving direct "taxes", and subsidies, and tax breaks for penetrating rural areas, which they pretty much still have not done. Nor do they follow through with promises for rural connectivity they make to states while securing preferred rights.

      A little different than coffee. (Assuming Starbucks is an adequate choice for coffee in any corner of the universe.)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Sep 2015 @ 6:00pm

    Sounds like our politicians need to vote themselves a pay cut for failing us all so miserably. I guess I now know why Donald Trump is so popular. YOU'RE FIRED!!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Sep 2015 @ 6:39am

    Make the CO carrier neutral.

    Communities should build their own Central Office, that CO should be carrier neutral, and any carrier willing to run conduit there should be able to offer service to the community. Local contractors can handle the last mile.

    For there to be a "free" market, there must first BE a market. While telecom requires more infrastructure than a farmers market, the real estate is still effectively a community asset. The public is compelled by self interest to maintain it.

    From the states perspective this is a matter of real estate and long term depreciable assets, not unlike bridges and tunnels. Sure there are unique technical features, but there are unique technical features to bridges and tunnels too.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    tqk (profile), 26 Sep 2015 @ 3:50pm

    Meanwhile, just north of the 49th parallel ...

    This's OpenMedia clamouring for change against "Murrican" ISPs: https://stoptheslowdown.net/

    Enjoy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Almost Anonymous (profile), 28 Sep 2015 @ 9:12am

    Essential, huh?

    So, I've never heard of a judge ordering someone's water-line being cutoff. No more ordering people's internet connections cut-off, then?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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