Commentary

Reformers Challenge FCC's Broadband Plan

For months, consumer advocacy groups have complained that the Federal Communications Commission's broadband plan wasn't going to go far enough to increase competition among Internet Service Providers. Now that the plan has been released, some reformers say this fear has been borne out.

"Without a major policy shift to increase competition, broadband service in the United States will continue to lag far behind the rest of the developed world," Yochai Benkler wrote in The New York Times.

Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, says that one major reason why other countries have faster and more affordable broadband is because they require Internet service providers to open their lines to rivals. "If every company has to dig its own holes, the price of entry is too high and competition falters; over time, innovation lags, and the goal of broader and better access suffers," he writes.

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Benkler helped author a study that called for the FCC to require that ISPs share their lines. But the week-old National Broadband Plan includes no such recommendation.

Benkler isn't the only one harping on this point. Advocacy groups like Free Press and Public Knowledge have long argued that the FCC should require Internet service providers to open their lines to rivals. The groups argue that otherwise, many U.S. residents will continue to have a choice of only two broadband providers -- their cable company or local phone company.

Whether the broadband duopoly will continue indefinitely remains to be seen. Some municipalities have taken matters into their own hands and built their own networks, which are faster and cheaper than what the local telecoms/cable companies offered. Google, meanwhile, is planning to test a fiber-to-the-home network that will deliver speeds of 1 Gbps -- more than 250 times the average U.S. broadband speed of 3.9 Mbps, according to Akamai.

But for now, cable companies and telecoms aren't showing much inclination to lower prices. On the contrary, Comcast and AT&T are about to raise rates for some consumers. Given the current lack of meaningful competition in much of the country, it's a safe bet that other ISPs will file suit.

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