from the the-best-laid-plans dept
As the years ticked by, it became increasingly clear many of the plan's action items were little more than political show ponies, paying empty lip service to issues like the digital divide, with ankle-high "goals" the government knew full well would have been achieved without government lifting a finger. Even the plan's architect Blair Levin has acknowledged the FCC was quick to offer a "one-note narrative of self-praise," instead of disrupting the status quo. Basically, it took 36 public workshops, 9 field hearings, 31 public notices and 376 pages to create the illusion the government was doing something about the nation's rotten duopoly problem.
Hindsight now has many people realizing that a search giant with bottomless pockets probably did more for broadband in the last five years than our massive national broadband plan ever did. Google Fiber's deployment of symmetrical gigabit service for $70 a month has helped drive a new national conversation about broadband competition. It has also driven a number of previously sleepy, uncompetitive ISPs to drive upgrades users wouldn't have seen otherwise. And as MIT Technology Review notes, it's kind of miraculous that Google Fiber happened at all:
"The unnerving thing is that so much of the present and future of broadband has come down to the whims of a single company, and a company that, in many ways, doesn’t look or act much like most American firms. If Google didn’t have such a dominant position in search and online advertising, giving it the resources to make big investments without any requirement of immediate return, Google Fiber wouldn’t have happened. And if Google’s leadership weren’t willing to make big long-term investments in projects outside the core business, or if the company didn’t have a dual-share structure that preserved its founders’ power and somewhat insulated its executives from Wall Street pressure, gigabit connections would more than likely be a fantasy in the United States today."Of course, while Google Fiber has received endless media adoration, the actual hard deployment impact is currently tiny, with only a few thousand users in Kansas City and Provo actually currently getting service (though Austin, Salt Lake City, Nashville, Atlanta, Charlotte and Raleigh/Durham builds are underway). A lot of the incumbent ISP response to Google Fiber has similarly been rather theatrical in nature ("fiber to the press release"), with carriers offering gigabit speeds to a few high-end housing developments and then pretending they're revolutionizing the broadband space, while millions of consumers remain stuck on sub 6 Mbps, $60 DSL lines with 150 GB monthly usage caps.
So make no mistake: the lack of competition is still a huge problem.
But Google Fiber's most important contribution has been two-fold. One, as Google intended, Google Fiber placed a huge, national spotlight on the nation's broadband market failures. Cities clamored on top of one another to be the next in line for service, every paper in the nation highlighting simultanesouly that the service they received from the regional duopoly simply wasn't very good, and that we could do something about it. Two, Google Fiber also brought the public's attention to an issue that most had spent the last decade ignoring: the fact that ISPs have spent the last fifteen years gleefully writing horrible protectionist state laws designed to protect their regional fiefdoms from the competition bogeyman.
Contrary to what some will say, the botched national broadband plan was not necessarily the fault of "government," just shitty government. Former FCC boss Genachowski was a professional fence sitter; so afraid of making tough policy decisions he'd make no decision at all, often dressing that inaction up as a mammoth accomplishment. It's easily arguable that current FCC boss Tom Wheeler has accomplished more for broadband in a little over a year in office (net neutrality and Title II reclassification, municipal broadband, and a notable crackdown on ISP fraud) than the last three FCC bosses combined.
But the real lesson from the last five years is that it was a collaboration between sensible, balanced regulation, risk-taking private industry and grass roots citizen activism that finally pushed the needle on broadband after fifteen years of dysfunction, which is how it's supposed to work when you're not (quite intentionally) distracted by a nasty case of partisan nitwit disease. Wheeler's building a basic framework to protect consumers in the absence of vibrant competition, Google Fiber's applying some much needed competition to apathetic incumbents, and municipal broadband operations are trying to shore up coverage and competition gaps in markets the incumbent providers couldn't care less about.
That seems notably more constructive than our broadband policies of the fifteen years prior, which vacillated between devising wimpy, elaborate plans that accomplished little to nothing, willfully pretending the broadband market wasn't broken, and proudly declaring that if we just left AT&T, Comcast and Verizon alone -- they'd collectively build us a magic free-market broadband Utopia powered by rainbows and puppy love.