FCC’s Latest Broadband Report Comes Under Fire

Published December 28, 2009

A recent report commissioned by the Federal Communications Commission declaring the United States “a middle of the pack performer” in broadband is coming under fire for allegedly cherrypicking data to justify stricter government regulation of the Internet.

The FCC selected the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University to compare broadband speeds and policies in different countries to see how the United States fares. The commission intends the use the report, titled “Next Generation Connectivity” and released in October, to help it establish its national broadband plan, which is scheduled for release in February.

The report concluded “open access policies”—including net neutrality rules of the type the FCC is likely to take up this year—are “almost universally understood as having played a core role in planning for the next generation transition” of broadband.

“We find that in countries where an engaged regulator enforced open access obligations, competitors that entered using these open access facilities provided an important catalyst for the development of robust competition which, in most cases, contributed to strong broadband performance across a range of metrics,” the report said.

Pro-Intervenion Bias Seen
Critics, however, have been taking shots at the supposedly “independent” report since the FCC officially opened it to public comment in November. Yochai Benkler, a longtime advocate of net neutrality, was the lead author of the report.

Scott Cleland, president of Precursor LLC in McLean, Virginia and chairman of NetCompetition.org, a pro-competition forum funded by broadband companies, said the FCC did not let other researchers compete for the contract to conduct the study. As a result, he says, no one should be surprised the report came back in favor of government-enforced net neutrality.

“This was a ‘liberal buddy’ taxpayer giveaway to Harvard,” Cleland said. “[The FCC] knew exactly what they were going to get back. Benkler is one of the thinkers behind net neutrality. The people at the FCC wanted this particular view, and they paid for it with our taxpayer dollars.”

‘Mother, May I?’
Cleland is skeptical about Benkler’s recommendation the FCC force private companies to “open up” their fiber infrastructure and mobile broadband access to competitors.  Such an “open access policy,” he said, would give the FCC so much regulatory power over telecommunications companies the commission could force them to restructure how they maintain and sell their network infrastructure.

“Benkler is a government-knows-best type [who thinks] government should be doing broadband connectivity and government should transform broadband into a public utility,” Cleland said. “Of course, if Benkler were to ultimately succeed, that would dramatically change the Internet.

“First, the Internet would move from being very user-centric to being more FCC-centric and driven by bureaucrats,” he added. “[Benkler’s viewpoint] is ‘Mother, may I?’ So if something new comes out, [Internet companies] will have to run to the FCC and ask ‘Mother, may I fight this cyber-terrorist attack?’ or ‘Mother, may I fight this worm?’ and so forth.

Questioning the Data

The report said the United States lags behind Ireland and Belgium in “Internet hot spots,” trails the Netherlands and Iceland in broadband speed, and has higher broadband prices than Spain and Finland.

George Ou, a telecommunications analyst at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation in Washington DC, argues Benkler’s report uses bad data and uses incorrect methodology in comparing America’s broadband speed and penetration to other countries.

“The data relies on reported, advertised speeds and prices which are either not directly comparable or sometimes just plain wrong, or the study relies on metrics that are arbitrary and useless,” Ou said.

Ou also notes Benkler crucially fails to differentiate between apartments and homes in his formulas. 

“The last problem with the cost analysis is that it fails to recognize the difference between single-unit homes and multi-unit apartments and condominiums,” Ou said. “It is possible to get very cheap 100 Mbps access for $30 in apartment complexes in cities like San Francisco, but none of these prices should be compared to single-unit homes.

“That’s because a significant portion of the ‘last mile’ infrastructure is borne by the rent paid by tenants,” he added.

Thomas Cheplick
([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.