Speed Control

By Glenn Fleishman December 24, 2009

Apropos of my article on how electricity was the killer app in 1900, like broadband is today, FCC Omnibus Broadband Initiative executive director Blair Levin told C-SPAN's The Communicators program that the agency was considering setting a floor of 2 to 4 Mbps as the slowest service available to any American. Unfortunately, Levin seems tied to incumbent telecoms and cable companies, and has no interest in spurring competitive firms to enter the broadband landscape and break one-and two-company chokeholds on high-speed Internet service.

Now this isn't a federally funded mandate, where the government would pick up the estimated $20 billion tab to get from here to there, nor would the cost of the service be paid for. Rather, the government is looking to provide incentives on the order of billions of dollars to get private firms to have the financial basis on which to build out the infrastructure in areas where there's not enough density or the right firms don't currently offer service. Households would have access to these data rates, but wouldn't be required to subscribe, of course.

The 2 to 4 Mbps range would allow people to access most of the features of the modern Internet, including digital video streaming (for entertainment or education) and significant sized downloads. Digital movie downloads can be 1 to 5 gigabytes, and that's feasible with the 2 to 4 Mbps range. It would allow a fair amount of telecommuting, but it wouldn't provide the rates for someone away from an office network to interact just as if they were on the same network.

There are tens of millions of Americans who use dial-up at 56 Kbps (which is really 30 to 40 Kbps), and having a baseline service that's 50 to 100 times faster seems like a perfectly reasonable short-term goal. Many millions of rural Americans subscribe to expensive, slow satellite Internet service, which have pitiful upstream rates. The cost for 2 to 4 Mbps broadband would likely be not much more than current dial-up and far less than comparable satellite service.

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA) would like to see 80 percent of Americans have the ability to get 50 Mbps or faster service downstream and 20 Mbps upstream by 2015, but that's probably not that far away.

Most major cities now have 12 to 20 Mbps options, and many (via DOCSIS 3.0 cable broadband service) have "up to" 50 Mbps options. Comcast, Cablevision, and other operators plan to have this faster broadband in most markets, while Verizon and AT&T want to have 20 to 50 Mbps available in urban and suburban areas as well. In fact, there will be 100 Mbps and faster service available in many markets in the next 1 to 2 years as well, but perhaps to less than 30 percent of American homes.

Verizon, AT&T, and Qwest will likely fight the effort, as Karl Bode at explains, because those firms have infrastructure that won't allow them to provide as uniformly higher data as cable infrastructure. Verizon is pulling fiber into homes to get rates of 50 Mbps and eventually far above, while AT&T and Qwest are bringing fiber into neighborhoods, which currently limits them really to about 20 Mbps, although the technology for that "final mile" continues to improve.

Current market conditions might hit 60 to 70 percent household penetration with 50 Mbps availability, so incentives to upgrade infrastructure to allow 50 Mbps in the 10 to 20 percent household gap could be required.

Levin rejects the notion of competitive and nondiscriminatory access to the phone and cable wire to break down monopoly and duopoly markets. That idea would let companies other than the carriers that built and own the wired infrastructure to purchase wholesale access at a rate comparable to the internal cost to the carrier, and resell retail service to consumers and businesses over that wire. This is how some, but not all, countries that have far higher average broadband rates (and typically far lower prices) handle access.

Levin's approach, which must represent an FCC consensus, assures that existing telecommunications and cable firms will continue to dominate the landscape and set the rules by which we have access to the Internet, even if it's generally at far higher data rates.

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