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6/19/2014
12:23 PM
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Broadband Pain: Less Drama, More Facts, Please

We must move beyond net neutrality sniping and wonky arguments. It's time to focus on ways to improve US telecom service.

Net neutrality arguments are getting more vicious and less helpful. Adding fuel to the fire, policy wonks and academics continue to debate one another about whether the US or Europe or Timbuktu are "ahead" of one another when it comes to broadband deployment. Debating policies and comparing arcane stats are ridiculous ways to evaluate whether customers are satisfied with their Internet connectivity. We need to get less wonkish and more practical.

Broadband policy is something of an arms race, pitting opposing political ideologies and partisan think tanks. The left-leaning New America Foundation and its allies inevitably vilify incumbent Big Telecom, calling for action to disrupt the cable/telephone duopoly or further regulate their pricing. The right-leaning Broadband For America and its allies report sunshine and rainbows on the US information superhighway, inevitably concluding that the existing telecom players are in the right and painting government and consumer groups as anti-capitalist.

A report that I received a couple of weeks ago, issued by the Penn Law Center For Technology, Innovation, And Competition, is clearly aligned with that second camp, making the contrarian argument that the US is "ahead" of Europe when it comes to broadband deployment. According to this report: "During peak hours, US actual download speeds were 96% of what was advertised, compared to Europe where consumers received only 74% of advertised download speeds." The Penn report also states: "The data indicate that the US had better coverage for fiber-to-the-premises (23% vs. 12%) and for 4G LTE (86% vs. 27%)." Those conclusions are eerily similar to those in an earlier Broadband For America report.

[Simmer down, net neutrality doomsayers. Learn Why Carriers Won't Win War On Netflix.]

I asked Dave Burstein, the even-handed broadband pundit behind DSL Prime, about the Penn report's main conclusion. "Essentially meaningless political drivel," he said. "I can spin this whatever way I'm biased toward. The overall networks are comparable, and where there's a difference it may change in a year or three." Burstein provided data of his own:

Broadband coverage in the major European countries is far ahead of the US, he said, noting that 5% of the US can get only satellite connectivity compared to 1% in France and England. Broadband prices are typically 30% to 60% lower in Europe than in the US, indicating that there's more competition there. “Anyone who says otherwise on price isn't a reliable source,” Burstein said.

On the other hand, he said, 96% of the US has cable service, compared with 65% of Germany, 50% of the UK, and about 30% of France. Since most DSL today is 25 Mbps or less and cable 100-Mbps-capable, US speeds are higher.

YouTube shares data about telecom providers' performance.
YouTube shares data about telecom providers' performance.

Benoit Felten, a broadband expert with Diffraction Analysis, gave me his informed 2 cents:

"Comparing Europe to the US makes no sense, as Europe includes developing economies that are inevitably far behind and drag averages down," Felten said. With regard to LTE, it's "an investment cycle issue more than anything," he said. "Europe invested heavily in 3G, unlike the US, and is therefore hesitant to invest heavily again in LTE. The US underinvested in 3G, which leaves both investment capacity and speed headroom to justify LTE investment." That appears to put the US ahead in terms of mobile speeds, but if Felten is right, it will correct itself at the edge of the telecom investment cycle.

My reaction is twofold:

First, data isn't a substitute for facts. We must interpret data, in aggregate, based on the source and collection methodology. For example, a glance at the data source for LTE in the Penn report shows it to be collected from Verizon, hardly an unbiased source. It would take a PhD in statistics and a carload more of time than most of us have to start chasing down all of the report's data sources and dissecting the methodology.

Second, if there's one thing that I have learned from my InformationWeek colleagues who cover big data, it's that you need to ask the right question of the data to be sure that you reach the right conclusions. So why aren't we asking the basic question: Are people's needs being met?

I run into hospital CIOs who say they're severely constrained by the level of affordable broadband that's available. And how many consumers are truly happy with their broadband providers? College campuses are provisioned adequately, but that just means that when my college kids come home on break, they scream with frustration as they attempt to play their multiplayer games, even though I pay for the highest tier of Internet service.

Netflix and YouTube use genius compression and adaptation algorithms to deal with the horrible state of broadband. They try hard to adjust their playback, but that doesn't always work because of congested (perhaps rate-limited) networks. Now that the principle of net neutrality stands to let providers create fast and slow lanes for Internet traffic, Netflix and YouTube are cleverly providing data to consumers about why their playback is slow.

Netflix simply tells customers when the ISP is the problem: "The Verizon network is crowded right now. Adjusting video for smoother playback." (Verizon has threatened to sue, but Netflix ain't backing down.)

YouTube goes so far as to show data about the provider in charts and graphs, providing a rating and a narrative, such as: "Users on networks rated as Lower Definition may experience fuzzy picture quality and frequent interruptions while playing YouTube videos at 360p and above." YouTube also provides its methodology.

I'm so bored of the drama. Let's throw out the mountains of irrelevant data for now and start talking about the true and correct question: How much pain is the customer in? (Providers don't get to answer.) And once we focus on that pain, let's talk about how we can start relieving it.

InformationWeek's new Must Reads is a compendium of our best recent coverage of the Internet of Things. Find out the way in which an aging workforce will drive progress on the Internet of Things, why the IoT isn't as scary as some folks seem to think, how connected machines will change the supply chain, and more. (Free registration required.)

Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human ... View Full Bio
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moarsauce123
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moarsauce123,
User Rank: Ninja
6/21/2014 | 9:08:11 AM
Comparing with Europe is very OK
I thin the comparisos with Europe are perfectly fine. The cultural and economic make up is about the same as for the US as is the technical savviness. We should look at the difference between the US and Europe: the three main differences are historical, political, and economical. Also, how come that still developing economies like Rumania have better broadband deployment with higher speeds and much lower prices than many areas in the US? That argument is not valid.

The historical aspect is that in Europe the countries used to have one national telco until the late 80s or mid 90s when even the last government run telcos were privatized (not out of technological necessity, but for freeing up funds to be wasted on other stuff). By that time western European telco systems were generally well maintained using for the time top of the line copper broadband tech, some even with fiver backbones. Such an investment was only possible through a government entitiy that is not entirely focus on ROI, shareholder value, quarterly numbers, and hoarding cash. In the US telcos were always private and traditionally limit investments into the network infrastructure to an absolute minimum. Preventing expenses is as good as increasing revenue. For that reason only metro areas have broadband access, only a select few with fiber to the home (and companies like Verizon announced they will not expand that). In general, telco infrastraucture is strung along poles that are subject to many environmental hazards and cause regular outages.

The political climate in Europe tends to be more consumer focused, especially through the influence of the EU commissions that not only set strict rules protecting consumer interest, but also levy hefty fines against violators. The only substantial political move in the US was breaking up Bell, which by now is pretty much reversed by reabsorption of the baby Bells into larger previous Bell companies. In Europe it was also a political decision to set maximum access fees for using the infrastructure run by the former government run monopolies. This is not the case in the US where the very few network operators face little to no competition and can ask service providers for rather high access fees. The effect is that in Europe in each national market a dozen or more service providers are competing for customers while in the US it is typically limited to two (cable co and phone co) in any regional market. Only in a few regions cell phone providers come in as a third force, but three companies each using different technology are not the same as competition. And with a former cable company lobbyist pulling the strings at the FCC consumer protection is clearly not wanted by the political forces that traditionally care more about improving the climate for corporations with the ill idea that this is somehow trickling down to consumers.

The economical differences are based on the political decisions. In Europe more service providers are offering services to consumers and businesses and municipalities are more and more building their own local fiber based broadband networks to primarily run administration, but also provide a backbone for the last mile. That allows providers to reach more potential customers and therefore customers can also easier switch providers. The entry to market for providers is much easier in Europe than in the US and in Europe there is vastly more competition and a maximum cost for getting content from A to B. That is not the case in the US which causes competition to be nearly zero.

The result is that in the US broadband access - if it is available at all - is slower and more expensive than in Europe. Also, due to the already existing regulations in Europe net neutrality is less of a concern because there are rules in place that guarantee equal access. I have yet to hear a single European telco moan about this and resort to drastic traffic shaping (aka discriminating against competitors' content).

Fact is that a level playing field and an easy entrance to market makes for more competition. Fact is also that extensive deployment of broadband access requires government entities at least as facilitator by paying for local distribution networks in cooperation with private companies. The private companies will have a guaranteed customer for a long period with a set flow of income and beyond that are allowed to market that access to consumers and other service providers. Fact is also that local administrations do nothing more than ask the regional telco if they could please put fiber into the neighborhoods, which is not generating enough revenue for the telco and thus just doesn't happen. Even state capitals like Albany, NY do not have fiber service (oddly, surrounding municipalities do!).

Fact is that in the US way too much focus is put on keeping telcos happy by allowing them to invest nothing into infrastructure and allowing them to intentionally slow down or even prevent traffic just so that investments into infrastructure can be avoided. One might say that the proposal 'fast lane' approach would address that, but it is rather likely that the existing infrastructure will stay as is while charging extra for fast access and leaving the tiny unused remains to anyone who cannot pay up. All that this does is make more money for telcos without them spending more on infrastructure. That is awesome for telcos and horrible for consumers.

The historical impacts cannot be changed, but fact is that the US needs a drastic shift in political will towards more true competition and more consumer protection rather than courting telcos and cementing the status quo. Further, local and regional administrations need to take a much more active role in rolling out broadband access with long term engagements and strict service level agreements. And please, put the cables underground and not along poles like in the 1800s!

 
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
6/20/2014 | 4:59:59 PM
Re: Colleges and bandwidth
That doesn't surprise me. Almost all students have three devices, some also have smart TVs, wireless printers, etc. And they demand blanketed connectivity. Wi-Fi quality is a top discussion point when choosing a school. 
ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
User Rank: Author
6/20/2014 | 4:25:38 PM
Re: Colleges and bandwidth
Lorna, I had a university CIO tell me that student bandwidth demand was growing 30%-50% a year.
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
6/20/2014 | 2:50:11 PM
Re: Colleges and bandwidth
Colleges are absolutely ruining kids for when they enter the real world. My student comes home with a laptop, tablet and smartphone all sucking up bandwidth. The moment she walks in the house my Chromebook slows to a crawl.
Somedude8
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Somedude8,
User Rank: Ninja
6/20/2014 | 12:54:24 PM
Sounds right to me
Sounds to me like Youtube and Netfilx are making the right moves here. Educating consumers is rarely a bad thing.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
6/19/2014 | 3:35:48 PM
Colleges and bandwidth
The university CIOs are a great resource in this bandwidth discussion.
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