In Hong Kong, I’m told, you can get 500-megabits-per-second Internet service for $25 a month. In my Massachusetts neighborhood, which happens to be served by Verizon FIOS fiber service, getting one-tenth that speed will set you back $80 (plus taxes and fees). And whereas in Hong Kong uploads are as fast as downloads, the Verizon service gives me half speed on the uploads.
Today’s announcement by FCC chairman Julius Genachowski that he intends to step down—to what greener pasture, we don’t yet know—is a good moment to reflect on his impact on communications technology over the past four years. Depending whom you ask, the United States is either at the cutting edge in broadband expansion and investment or a laggard on the global stage. Both are true.
Genachowski deserves a lot of credit for starting to break down the ossified spectrum regulations that hamper innovation. He’s pushed for incentive auctions of broadcast television spectrum, to make it available where it’s really needed—wireless communications. He has also spearheaded some novel spectrum-sharing schemes that will unlock the potential of new technologies (see “New Airwave Sharing Scheme Will Launch a Wireless Revolution”).
But what’s the view from the average living room? Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank, says it’s rosy. He praised the FCC’s National Broadband Plan and other initiatives led by Genachowski and cited his “leading role in spurring tremendous advances in broadband innovation and the Internet economy.” He offered data points: “82 percent of American homes are now passed by a broadband network with speeds of 100 [megabits per second] or higher, over 96 percent of the U.S. now has access to wired broadband, and we lead the world in adoption of 4G LTE mobile broadband.”
I heard Genachowski himself cite similar impressive numbers during a brief stopover he made at MIT not long ago. Ever upbeat, on Friday (today) he said: “America’s broadband economy is thriving, with record-setting private investment, unparalleled innovation in networks, device and apps, and renewed U.S. leadership around the world.”
Susan Crawford, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and a former special assistant to President Obama for science, technology, and innovation policy, says the chairman was “clearly focused on the potential of technology” and that he’d improved morale, launched efforts to overhaul subsidy programs, and helped block the merger of AT&T and T-Mobile.
But then there’s the embarassing side of things. Crawford reminds us that one-third of Americans don’t have wired Internet access at home, and “non-adoption is tightly correlated with income and education level.” In other words, people who most need a digital boost can’t afford to get it. Crawford adds that the United States is a nation of communications monopolies. “For more than 80 percent of Americans, their only choice for world-class Internet access will be their local cable monopoly. And 19 million Americans can’t buy a wired connection at any price—it’s not available where they live.”
Crawford concludes: “We have a highly concentrated yet second-rate picture in America, because we’ve both deregulated this sector and allowed sweeping consolidation. By contrast, in many countries, the policy is to get everyone connected to fiber to their home … at a reasonable price.” The relatively high costs of service at my house are typical of the American market. There are a few notable exceptions (see “When Will the Rest of Us Get Google Fiber?”). But we’ve got a long way to go to empower most Americans with communications technologies.