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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.

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

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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
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. 
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
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.
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.
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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