Saturday, May 07, 2005

The Corporate Broadband Bottleneck

Jim Baller, a leading voice on the municipal broadband issue, shares this quick review of Tom Friedman’s latest tome, The World Is Flat. While Friedman tends to paint the world in broad strokes, his critique of America’s broadband deployment is on target.

Baller writes to recommend Friedman's book along with China, Inc., Ted Fishman's book on China's surging economy, Thomas Bleha's article in Foreign Affairs on the impact of America's drop in global broadband stature and The United States of Europe, The New Superpower and the End of American Supremacy, by T. R. Reid. Baller writes:

No Time to Waste
Friedman, Fishman, and Bleha are all saying much the same thing: America has got to wake up and get moving quickly on broadband deployment, or we're going to be in much more serious trouble than most Americans realize. As Bleha trenchantly notes: "Once a leader in Internet innovation, the United States has fallen far behind Japan and other Asian states in deploying broadband and the latest mobile-phone technology. This lag will cost it dearly. By outdoing the United States, Japan and its neighbors are positioning themselves to be the first states to reap the benefits of the broadband era: economic growth, increased productivity, and a better quality of life."
Under the corporate friendly Bush Administration, America has gone from 4th to 16th in the world in per capita broadband deployment. And, as Baller points out, we're rapidly losing ground to others in access to high-bandwith capacity and cost per unit of bandwidth.

Telecommunications giants have mobilized a well-funded army of coin-operated think tanks, lobbyists and pliant legislators to protect their Internet fiefdoms from locally supported broadband initiatives. They're helped in this pursuit by lazy journalists who regurgitate fact-challenged talking points -- painting public broadband as an affront to American free enterprise -- without revealing the duplicity of their sources.

Their weapon of choice is industry-crafted legislation that restricts local governments from offering public service Internet access at reasonable rates. Laws are already on the books in a dozen states. This year alone, 10 states are considering similar bills to block public broadband or to strengthen existing restrictions.

Baller adds:
With municipalities across the United States ready, willing, and able to step forward to do their part to help America reverse these trends, it is ridiculous beyond belief for us to be wasting our time fighting over state barriers to public involvement. Instead, we should doing everything possible to remove barriers to collaboration between our public and private sectors. [his emphasis]
It would be none too soon. Spinning broadband as theirs alone to provide, ISPs have chalked up some early victories—including a draconian law now on the books in Pennsylvania, which strips local governments of the right to choose their own homegrown broadband solutions without the prior approval of a monopoly phone company.

In late 2004, Verizon dictated the law word-for-word to local legislators, who then quietly slipped it into the middle of a 72-page bill that appeared to call for improved communications infrastructure for all Pennsylvanians.

It will have the opposite effect.

Forcing public broadband networks to ask permission from Verizon before offering services is akin to forcing a city to seek permission from Barnes & Noble before building a library.

The municipal broadband issue is not about creeping socialism, as the telecom firms would want you to think, but about their meddling with citizens' right to chose their own broadband destiny. As long as these corporations hold sway over our political process and media, America will continue its path towards becoming a broadband backwater.

Friedman put it well in his April 15 Times column:
"Economics is not like war. It can be win-win. But you need to be at a certain level to be able to claim your share of a global pie that is both expanding and becoming more complex. Tax cuts can't solve every problem. This administration -- which often seems more interested in indulging creationism than spurring creativity -- is doing a very poor job of preparing the country for that next level."
Friedman stopped short of a rationale for the White House's footdragging on broadband. But reading between the lines you come to one inevitable conclusion: Bush owes too many favors to the media and telcom corporations who helped put him into office to loosen their stranglehold on Internet service and open broadband access to better, more local providers.

POST SCRIPT: Listen to Bleha on "On the Media;" Read Drew Clark's story in the National Journal.

1 comment:

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