Why US broadband is so slow, there is a competitive truce

In 1996, the US Congress kicked off the broadband revolution when it passed the Telecom Act. The 1996 Act created a level playing field for competitive carriers, and brought about widespread deployment of DSL and other broadband technologies.

Then in 2003 and 2004, the then Republican led FCC reversed course, removing shared access to essential fiber infrastructure for competitive carriers and codifying instead a policy of exclusive use and “multi-modal competition”.

This concreted our unique US duopoly: cable versus telco, the two broadband choices that most Americans have today.

In exchange for a truly competitive market, the US received promises of widespread deployment. And, to some degree this has worked. Unfettered by significant competition or price pressure, broadband in at least in its most basic form can now be delivered to most homes in America, albeit at a comparatively high cost to the consumer.

Elsewhere in the world, regulatory bodies followed the lead of the US Congress and separated essential copper and fiber infrastructure from the services and providers who used them, and the result has been amazing. In Asia and Europe, Gigabit services are becoming common, and the price paid by consumers per megabit is a tiny fraction of what we pay here at home.

I won’t deny the innovation that has occurred in the telco/cable duopoly. They’ve got TV, Internet and telephone bundles designed to serve up prime time network shows in over-saturated HD glory, with comparatively middling Internet speeds, all offered with teaser rates and terms that would baffle an economics professor. The clear value of the bundle is to baffle, and pity the consumer who wants to shed a component. At least during the intro periods, it’s often cheaper to take the whole package than just a component or two.

For cable companies, the entrenched interest in the television entertainment portion creates a clear conflict: why should they offer an uncapped broadband connection that can deliver enough video entertainment to allow consumers to cut the TV cord? And if you do drop the TV, up goes the price for even this slow and capped Internet connection, so you pay more either way. And now that telcos have gotten into the television business too, their interest in slowing the pace of increasing broadband speed is aligned as well.

This has yielded a competitive truce in America.

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