The Real Deal on U.S. Broadband

Is American broadband broken?

Tim Lee thinks so. Where he once leaned against intervention in the broadband marketplace, Lee says four things are leading him to rethink and tilt toward more government control.

First, Lee cites the “voluminous” 2009 Berkman Report. Which is surprising. The report published by Harvard’s Berkman Center may have been voluminous, but it lacked accuracy in its details and persuasiveness in its big-picture take-aways. Berkman used every trick in the book to claim “open access” regulation around the world boosted other nation’s broadband economies and lack of such regulation in the U.S. harmed ours. But the report’s data and methodology were so thoroughly discredited (especially in two detailed reports issued by economists Robert Crandall, Everett Ehrlich, and Jeff Eisenach and Robert Hahn) that the FCC, which commissioned the report, essentially abandoned it.  Here was my summary of the economists’ critiques:

The [Berkman] report botched its chief statistical model in half a dozen ways. It used loads of questionable data. It didn’t account for the unique market structure of U.S. broadband. It reversed the arrow of time in its country case studies. It ignored the high-profile history of open access regulation in the U.S. It didn’t conduct the literature review the FCC asked for. It excommunicated Switzerland.

. . .

Berkman’s qualitative analysis was, if possible, just as misleading. It passed along faulty data on broadband speeds and prices. It asserted South Korea’s broadband boom was due to open access regulation, but in fact most of South Korea’s surge happened before it instituted any regulation. The study said Japanese broadband, likewise, is a winner because of regulation. But regulated DSL is declining fast even as facilities-based (unshared, proprietary) fiber-to-the-home is surging.

Berkman also enjoyed comparing broadband speeds of tiny European and Asian countries to the whole U.S. But if we examine individual American states — New York or Arizona, for example — we find many of them outrank most European nations and Europe as a whole. In fact, applying the same Speedtest.com data Berkman used, the U.S. as a whole outpaces Europe as a whole! Comparing small islands of excellence to much larger, more diverse populations or geographies is bound to skew your analysis.

The Berkman report twisted itself in pretzels trying to paint a miserable picture of the U.S. Internet economy and a glowing picture of heavy regulation in foreign nations. Berkman, however, ignored the prima facie evidence of a vibrant U.S. broadband marketplace, manifest in the boom in Web video, mobile devices, the App Economy, cloud computing, and on and on.

How could the bulk of the world’s best broadband apps, services, and sites be developed and achieve their highest successes in the U.S. if American broadband were so slow and thinly deployed? We came up with a metric that seemed to refute the notion that U.S. broadband was lagging, namely, how much network traffic Americans generate vis-à-vis the rest of the world. It turned out the U.S. generates more network traffic per capita and per Internet user than any nation but South Korea and generates about two-thirds more per-user traffic than the closest advanced economy of comparable size, Western Europe.

Berkman based its conclusions almost solely on (incorrect) measures of “broadband penetration” — the number of broadband subscriptions per capita — but that metric turned out to be a better indicator of household size than broadband health. Lee acknowledges the faulty analysis but still assumes “broadband penetration” is the sine qua non measure of Internet health. Maybe we’re not awful, as Berkman claimed, Lee seems to be saying, but even if we correct for their methodological mistakes, U.S. broadband penetration is still just OK. “That matters,” Lee writes,

because a key argument for America’s relatively hands-off approach to broadband regulation has been that giving incumbents free rein would give them incentive to invest more in their networks. The United States is practically the only country to pursue this policy, so if the incentive argument was right, its advocates should have been able to point to statistics showing we’re doing much better than the rest of the world. Instead, the argument has been over just how close to the middle of the pack we are.

No, I don’t agree that the argument has consisted of bickering over whether the U.S. is more or less mediocre. Not at all. I do agree that advocates of government regulation have had to adjust their argument — U.S. broadband is awful mediocre. Yet they still hang their hat on “broadband penetration” because most other evidence on the health of the U.S. digital economy is even less supportive of their case.

In each of the last seven years, U.S. broadband providers have invested between $60 and $70 billion in their networks. Overall, the U.S. leads the world in info-tech investment — totaling nearly $500 billion last year. The U.S. now boasts more than 80 million residential broadband links and 200+ million mobile broadband subscribers. U.S. mobile operators have deployed more 4G mobile network capacity than anyone, and Verizon just announced its FiOS fiber service will offer 300 megabit-per-second residential connections — perhaps the fastest large-scale deployment in the world.

Eisenach and Crandall followed up their critique of the Berkman study with a fresh March 2012 analysis of “open access” regulation around the world (this time with Allan Ingraham). They found:

  • “it is clear that copper loop unbundling did not accelerate the deployment or increase the penetration of first-generation broadband networks, and that it had a depressing effect on network investment”
  • “By contrast, it seems clear that platform competition was very important in promoting broadband deployment and uptake in the earlier era of DSL and cable modem competition.”
  • “to the extent new fiber networks are being deployed in Europe, they are largely being deployed by unregulated, non-ILEC carriers, not by the regulated incumbent telecom companies, and not by entrants that have relied on copper-loop unbundling.”

Lee doesn’t mention the incisive criticisms of the Berkman study nor the voluminous literature, including this latest example, showing open access policies are ineffective at best, and more likely harmful.

In coming posts, I’ll address Lee’s three other worries.

— Bret Swanson

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