Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Rebooting the broadband debate

Rob Atkinson and his colleagues at ITIF have written an even-handed and insightful report on “Explaining International Broadband Leadership”.

They found that while the United States is behind other countries in broadband deployment, speed and price, it can’t all be blamed on the government – but that good policies can make a difference. It’s harder than many on the Left claim to find a silver bullet in the experience of some other country (France, South Korea, etc.), but despite claims from the Right, one can learn something from their best practices. Government leadership and competition matter, but so do market incentives on both the supply and demand side.

Atkinson, Correa and Hedlund’s headline policy recommendation is that we end the “either-or shouting matches”. However, the question is How? They call for a “pragmatic discussion”, but that’s the end result, not the means to the end. It’s true, as they say, that we should be able to agree that the United States can do better on broadband, but we can only move beyond a divisive and unproductive debate if the conversation is reframed – and if we can recruit new, less entrenched, participants to the table.

One could engage industry and society at large (rather than just companies and activists with narrow issue agendas) if broadband were tied to commercial and personal success.

Workforce development: “Telecommuting” is a very tired meme nowadays, but it had power back in the day. If the Fortune 500 came to believe that universal affordable broadband would make them more competitive, and if the AFL-CIO came to believe that it would make workers more employable, then the debate might shift.

More sales: The “information superhighway” is just as tired, but the notion that the interstates and local roads are good for business is as true now as it ever was. If US retailers of goods and services (including entertainment) came to believe that they’d generate more profitable sales if the network was faster and cheaper, and if populist protectionists came to believe that fast local broadband was a bulwark against losing business to them furriners, then the debate might shift.

Energy: If one could make an argument that the US could get to energy independence sooner by moving bits rather than atoms, then the debate might shift. Gas prices will fluctuate, but the trend will be up. If you’re moving atoms, the world isn’t flat. Broadband can enable gains from local specialization based on knowledge, rather than production costs of commodities.

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