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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.

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.

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