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No Broadband Champagne Yet

The response to action can be as important as the action.


On Feb. 26, the Federal Communications Commission will vote to regulate broadband under Title II and challenge two state laws constraining municipal broadband deployment efforts. Progressives, longtime advocates of both actions, owe a huge “thanks” to Verizon. Its legal challenge to earlier, weaker FCC rules opened the door to the reclassification and a footnote in the court decision provided a path for the FCC to champion municipal broadband, a valuable lesson for all considering responding to adverse agency decisions.

So how should progressives react to these positive decisions? Professor Susan Crawford suggests it’s time to “pop the champagne corks.” Perhaps we should keep those bottles on ice a little longer.

Despite the considerable merits of the decisions, a sober analysis reveals they will not broadly stimulate upgrades or new deployments. To achieve affordable, abundant bandwidth, our work in the trenches remains in front of us.

Advocates of Title II argue openness drives applications that stimulate deployment while opponents argue it will discourage investment. As an empirical matter, I see evidence of neither. My organization, Gig.U, has communities involved with more than two dozen such initiatives already, involving more than 75 cities. All the new investments were driven by a combination of changes in city policies and/or in the competitive market, particularly the threat of Google Fiber entry.

Title II does not change the core economic calculus driving those efforts, as suggested by Google’s statements, as well at AT&T’s response to Google’s recent expansion announcements.

Still, while an open Internet is vital, and future applications may well drive future investments, it’s unlikely that Title II alone will accelerate the movement from bandwidth scarcity to abundance, a movement critical to the underlying concerns of all participants in the debate.

As to municipal broadband, if the FCC succeeds in overturning the specific state laws before it, the record suggests some new network deployments delivering faster, better, cheaper broadband will follow, a prospect worthy of applause. (Disclosure: I helped author the section of the National Broadband Plan calling for similar federal action and serve as an adviser to the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, an advocate for removing state barriers.)

However, while I favor the action, I do not pretend that it will broadly address the key issue first raised in the plan, unfortunately ignored by the previous FCC, but recently highlighted by both Chairman Tom Wheeler and President Obama: At higher broadband speeds, most Americans will not have the competitive options that drive affordable abundance.

The upcoming FCC action will largely assist efforts in rural areas that often lack cable competition and benefit from federal subsidies. Those models face significant challenges when tried in more densely populated regions where most Americans live.

Over the last few years, drafting off the momentum of Google Fiber and smaller players like Ting and C Spire, Gig.U has worked with a series of experiments with community-led broadband — efforts by communities to improve the economics of deployment and their own leverage in negotiating for networks that will deliver affordable, abundant bandwidth.

Some have failed. Some are working. All have taught valuable lessons for others seeking to accelerate next-generation network deployments.

One lesson is that all levels of government can improve the economics of deployment. While it gained less publicity than other parts of his Cedar Falls speech, I was delighted that the President, improving on a plan proposal, called for all federal agencies to remove barriers to new broadband deployments. From the view in the trenches, changes in obscure rules from agencies like the General Services Administration, the Veterans Administration, the Department of Transportation and others can greatly aid community–led efforts.

With regard to the larger market problem identified by the president and Chairman Wheeler, we need a robust deployment agenda. It could include, for example, inquiries into providing improved access to programming, poles, multiple-dwelling units, spectrum, interfaces and even customers.

For example, as Chairman Wheeler noted, minimal switching costs were essential for long-distance competition. In broadband, however, incumbents successfully make it hard for customers to switch. One can argue about particular policies, but no one should doubt current barriers to access discourage market entry and upgrades.

I don’t begrudge anyone celebratory champagne, particularly when there’s “really something to be joyful for.” I am even optimistic in a way I wasn’t when Gig.U started, that we will spark a game of gigs that will drive another great cycle of American innovation.

But, as Verizon inadvertently schooled us, the response to action can be as important as the action. As we move toward the inevitable follow-up proceedings at the FCC, in Congress and in the courts, I hope we consider that regulatory regimes have a variable life span, but competitive networks that deliver affordable, abundant bandwidth to all Americans will be a thing of joy forever.

Blair Levin led the FCC’s effort to write a National Broadband Plan four years ago. He also worked as a telecom analyst for years, and was a former FCC chief of staff. He now runs Gig.U, a project to bring high-speed Internet to communities surrounding college campuses. Reach him @BlairLevin.

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