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Lies, Damned Lies, and Broadband Numbers: Life is Good, Say Broadband Providers; Consumers Disagree


A telecom industry front group acknowledged today American broadband in the last decade has not won any awards for speed or price, but if you just give the industry ten more years of deregulation, there will be more competition than ever to change that.

For the Internet Innovation Alliance’s Bruce Mehlman, the cable and phone companies have done a fine job bringing broadband to Americans, especially considering the industry is only ten years old.  If you leave things the way they are today, the next decade will bring even more competition from phone and cable companies, he promises.

But consumer groups wonder exactly how a duopoly will ever deliver world class service in the next ten years when it has spent the last ten hiking prices on slow speed broadband and now wants to limit or throttle usage.

This afternoon, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered tried to referee the broadband debate, pondering whether America is a world leader in broadband or has just fallen behind Estonia.  Reporter Joel Rose was perplexed to find two widely diverging attitudes about broadband, each with their set of numbers to prove their case.

On one side, consumers and public interest groups like Consumers Union and Free Press who believe deregulation and industry consolidation has created a stagnant broadband duopoly that only innovates how it can get away with charging even higher prices.

On the other, the phone and cable companies, the groups they finance, and their friends on Capitol Hill who believe there isn’t a broadband problem in the United States to begin with and government oversight would ruin a good thing.

Compared with other nations, the United States has continued to see its standing fall in broadband rankings measuring speed, price, adoption rates, and quality.  When East European countries and former Soviet Republics now routinely deliver better broadband service than America’s cable and telephone companies, that story writes itself. Embarrassed industry defenders prefer to confine discussion of America’s broadband success story inside the U.S. borders, discounting comparisons with other countries around the world.

For Rep. Joe “I Apologize to BP” Barton (R-Texas), it’s even more simple than that.  Even questioning the free market is downright silly.

“As everybody knows, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” Barton said at a March congressional hearing to discuss broadband matters. “And y’all are trying to fix something that in most cases isn’t broke. Ninety-five percent of America has broadband.”

Industry-financed astroturf and sock puppet groups readily agree, and dismiss industry critics.

Bruce Mehlman, co-chair of the industry-supported Internet Innovation Alliance, which opposes more regulation, acknowledges that the story of broadband in the U.S. is a classic glass-half-full, glass-half-empty predicament. Still, he says he thinks broadband adoption in the U.S. is going pretty well considering broadband has only been available for 10 years.

“For the optimist, you’d say within a decade we’ve seen greater broadband deployment than you saw for cell phones, than for cable TV, than for personal computers,” Mehlman says. “It’s one of the great technology success stories in history.”

Mehlman says Americans don’t need more government intervention to make broadband faster and cheaper. “We haven’t yet and that’s in the first decade,” he says. “In the second decade, the marketplace is only going to be that much more competitive.”


The problems go further than that, however.

Derek Turner, research director for the public interest group Free Press, told NPR broadband rankings tell an important story. “For the providers to try to say that there’s no problem, it’s merely just a smoke screen,” he says.

Providers would prefer to measure their performance against each other instead of comparing themselves with foreign providers now routinely providing better, faster, and cheaper service than what American consumers can find.  They have to, if only because of those pesky international rankings illustrating a wired United States in decline.

Joel Kelsey at Consumers Union tells NPR there is an even bigger question here — what role broadband plays in our lives.

Because 96 percent of Americans can only get broadband from a duopoly — the phone or cable company, the only people truly singing the praises of today’s broadband marketplace are the providers themselves and their shareholders.  Consumers see a bigger problem — high prices, and particularly for rural consumers, slow speeds.

“If you talk to [the] industry,” Kelsey says, “they think of broadband as a private commercial service akin to pay TV or cable TV.”

On the other hand, Kelsey says, “There’s a lot of folks who think it is an essential input into this nation’s economy — an essential infrastructure question.”

National Public Radio reporter Joel Rose dived into the battle over broadband numbers between consumer groups and industry representatives. Is America’s broadband glass half-full or half-empty? (June 28, 2010) (4 minutes)
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13 years ago

Increased executive salaries, decreased customer service

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