Consider who pays for broadband studies, but don’t stop there

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Gamblers or exiled royalty?

I’ve commented on a couple of university studies recently, one critical of municipal broadband’s business model and the other ripping AT&T’s infrastructure upgrade redlining in California. In neither case did I write about who picked up the tab for the work. That’s because I thought that both analyses stood on their own. But it’s a fair question to ask and, for the muni broadband study at least, it’s a significant one because the source of the money was the primary basis for challenging the work.

The AT&T study was done by U.C. Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, but was largely paid for by the Communications Workers of America, which is the primary union representing the company’s employees. And which was in the middle of a major contract dispute at the time.

The University of Pennsylvania’s report was published by its Center for Innovation, Technology and Competition, which gets its funding from several self-interested contributors, such as AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and lobbying fronts for the cable and mobile industries. But there’s also representation on the list from players who often end up on the other side of the table, including Facebook, Microsoft and the Internet Society.

But that’s the way the system works in academia, as The Economist notes

Derek Bok, a former president of Harvard, once observed that “universities share one characteristic with compulsive gamblers and exiled royalty: there is never enough money to satisfy their desires.” This is a bit hard on compulsive gamblers and exiled royals.

The way to challenge an analysis done by a reputable institution – and I’m not generally including Washington think tanks in that category – is on the basis of the methodology and data used. In both studies, the method was solid. I can’t fault the Haas Institute’s work – they ran the same kind of analysis on CPUC and FCC data that I regularly do, and came to very similar conclusions. Likewise, there was no reason to fault the methodology in the Pennsylvania report. It was pretty basic comparative analysis of financial results.

There were problems with the data in both studies, but that’s not the fault of the authors. Muni fiber to the home results are not published with the same rigor as those from publicly traded companies, if they’re published at all. The CPUC data that the Haas study looked at is only so granular – it gives a pixelated view of broadband availability at the census block level, but no better.