Genachowski's Gigabit Gambit

Last week, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski extolled the virtues of “gigabit” broadband:

Making sure the U.S. has super-fast, high-capacity, ubiquitous broadband networks delivering speeds measured in gigabits, not megabits, isn’t just a matter of consumer convenience, as important as that is. It’s essential to economic growth, job creation and U.S. competitiveness.

Well, yes!

And then:

Make no mistake: If the U.S. doesn't continue to invest in our broadband infrastructure, somebody else will take the lead.

Agreed.

He noted that communities with gigabit networks are busy attracting businesses and startups. Take Chattanooga, Tenn., where the super-swift network “has helped attract businesses like Amazon and Volkswagen, creating more than 3,700 local jobs.” A few other communities around the country have done the same — mostly because they built their own municipal networks.

Genachowski said these “gigabit test beds” will “help ensure that the U.S. remains a magnet for the world’s greatest entrepreneurs,” and will enable U.S. communities to participate in the information economy. This is all good and warrants repeating.

Only a handful of these test beds exists right now. There could be hundreds or thousands. But at every step the big service providers the FCC is supposed to regulate — companies like Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Verizon — have blocked communities from moving forward. Why? They don’t want competition from those who see broadband as critical infrastructure and a local resource.

Genachowski didn’t touch on any of this. He offered no indication that the FCC would take a bigger and more proactive role in stimulating broadband competition. So what kind of vision did he offer? He said the FCC could be a kind of clearinghouse that would share news about what providers and communities are already doing. Bold.

This is simply not enough in a world in which incumbent providers like Comcast and Verizon refuse to build these networks themselves, and spend millions blocking cities and towns from doing it. How exactly are we supposed to get gigabit without providing better incentives for companies to innovate and compete?

It would be nice if it were easier for communities to pick up the slack and build the networks themselves. But laws in 19 states — laws that, in many cases, the telecom lobby itself drafted —prohibit communities from doing so. The FCC can’t speak directly to such state laws, but it could do a lot more to promote competition among incumbents — instead of just ignoring the enormous political and economic power these telecoms have.

Genachowski has a bully pulpit — he’s the head of the federal agency charged with overseeing the communications sector — but it’s all for naught if he won’t use the power he has. He won’t even admonish incumbent ISPs for refusing to build out these essential networks, he won’t say who should build them instead and he won’t name the reasons why the U.S. is falling behind the rest of the world in access, speed and affordability. Those reasons are clear, even if the policy solutions aren’t politically easy.

Christopher Mitchell, who heads up the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s research on community broadband, noted in the Huffington Post, “If only the head of the Federal Communications Commission understood what is preventing us from building those networks. Hint: It isn’t a lack of demand.”

He goes on:

Local businesses get it. Mayors get it. City councils get it. And unlike Chairman Genachowski, they know what the problem is: little incentive for massive, established cable monopolies to invest in networks when they are harvesting record profits and subscribers have no other choices. Wall Street not only gets it, it actually rejoices in it! …

What is our FCC chair doing about this problem? He helped Comcast to grow even bigger, with more market power to crush those rivals that he is calling on to build gigabit test beds.

Chairman G wants to spur hundreds of Davids while refusing to curb Goliath’s power. Bad news, Mr. Chairman; Goliath actually wins most of the time. Rather than doing his job, Genachowski is begging others to do it for him.

And as for those “gigabit test beds”:

New test beds are great but they don’t solve our problem. We need an FCC chair that will wrestle with the real problem: Far too much of our essential telecommunications infrastructure is controlled by de facto monopolies unaccountable to the communities that depend upon them.

Words conspicuously missing from Genachowski’s piece of puffery include “monopolies,” “corporate lobbyists” and “revolving doors.” And that’s a shame — because until we get those words out of the vocabulary of our broadband policy, we’re never going to get the investment in broadband infrastructure we need. And somebody else will take the lead.

Original photo from Flickr user United Nations Mission Geneva


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