Build economic demand to grow broadband supply

30 May 2014 by Steve Blum
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There’s no credible argument that telecoms companies are dedicated to anything like universal high speed, low cost Internet service. AT&T, for example, wants to send you a bill no matter where you live, but picks and chooses where to build fiber – “high potential” growth areas like central business districts and pricey new subdivisions – and where to rely on hit and miss mobile infrastructure, like inner cities and rural communities.

You can call that cherry picking, as I do, or redlining, as Harold Feld blogs in a couple of 5 minute videos (h/t again to Connie Stewart). He’s the grinder-in-chief of the Tales of the Sausage Factory blog and telecoms guru at Public Knowledge, a Washington consumer lobbying group that focuses on IP, of both the Internet protocol and intellectual property varieties.

Cherry picking means deliberately choosing the juiciest neighborhoods to invest in; redlining means deliberately excluding low income ones. It’s a fine distinction that’s worth debating, but the end result is the same. Them what has, gets.

Feld extends the redlining concept to the net neutrality debate by arguing that allowing content companies to buy fast lanes to consumers from ISPs will pile redlining upon redlining – they can only find a fast lane where it’s already been built and they’ll only buy the most profitable of those.

True enough, but it misses the point. You don’t improve people’s lives by mandating uniform service regardless of income or geography. You do it by creating demand: boost income through economic growth by seeding broadband infrastructure and removing barriers to construction. Regulating the size of everyone’s slice of the Internet will only slow development of the new technology, services and business models that drive our economy. If you want universal supply, work to build universal demand.