Broadband Boosterism At The NY Times

Something curious happened on the New York Times' op-ed page last week. On June 16 the paper featured an op-ed from a fellow at a (cable lobby funded) telecom think tank that talked up the United States' middling broadband connectivity, massaged a few data points to make the case, and took a swipe at Susan Crawford, one of the more prominent critics of the state of America's broadband infrastructure. A few days later, they featured another op-ed, this one by Verizon chairman and CEO Lowell McAdam, that talked up the United States' middling broadband connectivity, massaged the same few data points to make the case, and took a swipe at Susan Crawford.

So what's going on here? Internet policy has briefly broken into the news cycle with the likely confirmation of former telecom lobbyist Tom Wheeler as the next Federal Communications Commission chairman. Crawford, who served as President Obama's special assistant for technology, has been harshly critical of the state of America's internet infrastructure, which she says is dominated by a few big cable providers that work to stifle competition. McAdam, who obviously has a stake in promoting the health of our broadband networks, writes that Crawford's “criticisms are misplaced” and the telecom industry is hunky-dory.

To make that argument, McAdam throws a few statistics our way:

More than 80 percent of American households live in areas that offer access to broadband networks capable of delivering data with speeds in excess of 100 megabits per second. Almost everyone in the country has several competitive choices for high-speed broadband service (with wireline, satellite and wireless options). Verizon offers 14.7 million consumers, in parts of 12 states and the District of Columbia, speeds up to 300 megabits per second via our FiOS network, which is poised to provide even greater speeds in the future. Companies like AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner Cable are also investing in their infrastructure.

Let's focus on this “competitive choices” argument as it relates to broadband access. Information Technology and Innovation Foundation senior fellow Richard Bennett similarly argued in his June 16 Times op-ed that “a competition policy that encouraged cable and phone companies to improve their networks” has “propelled America's networks forward.” The case they both make is that the U.S. broadband market is plenty competitive if you include wireless providers, which is a pretty big “if.”

There's no question that the U.S. leads when it comes to wireless broadband technology, but 4G internet to your cell phone is not the same as a wired internet connection to your computer -- it's more expensive, more restrictive, and wholly insufficient for data-intensive online activities. When it comes to wired internet, the big cable providers sit comfortably on top of de facto local monopolies.

For a Verizon executive to make this argument is particularly galling given that Verizon currently has a cross-marketing agreement with their ostensible competitor, Comcast. McAdam talks up Verizon's FiOS service, but he doesn't mention that Verizon long ago ceased building out the fiber optic network. And in those areas without FiOS penetration, Verizon happily promotes Comcast's broadband internet service alongside their mobile phone plans. This is healthy broadband competition?

More generally speaking, that's two New York Times op-eds in one week making the same arguments about America's broadband infrastructure. Maybe it's time for the opposing view -- perhaps from someone criticized by name in both op-eds?