Doublespeak in the Debate About Rural Broadband Buildout

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As Thomas Sowell has noted many times, political debates often involve the use of words which if taken literally mean something very different than the connotations which are conveyed. Examples abound in the debate about broadband buildout. 

There is a general consensus on the need to subsidize aspects of broadband buildout to rural areas in order to close the digital divide. But this real need allows for strategic obfuscation of key terms in this debate by parties hoping to achieve political or competitive gain. 

“Access” and “high-speed broadband”

For instance, nearly everyone would agree that Internet policy should “promote access to high-speed broadband.” But how some academics and activists define “access” and “high-speed broadband” are much different than the average American would expect.

A commonsense definition of access is that consumers have the ability to buy broadband sufficient to meet their needs, considering the costs and benefits they face. In the context of the digital divide between rural and urban areas, the different options available to consumers in each area is a reflection of the very real costs and other challenges of providing service. In rural areas with low population density, it costs broadband providers considerably more per potential subscriber to build the infrastructure needed to provide service. At some point, depending on the technology, it is no longer profitable to build out to the next customer several miles down the road. The options and prices available to rural consumers reflects this unavoidable fact. Holding price constant, there is no doubt that many rural consumers would prefer higher speeds than are currently available to them. But this is not the real-world choice which presents itself. 

But access in this debate instead means the availability of the same broadband options regardless of where people live. Rather than being seen as a reflection of underlying economic realities, the fact that rural Americans do not have the same options available to them that urban Americans do is seen as a problem which calls out for a political solution. Thus, billions of dollars are spent in an attempt to “close the digital divide” by subsidizing broadband providers to build infrastructure to  rural areas. 

“High-speed broadband” similarly has a meaning in this debate significantly different from what many consumers, especially those lacking “high speed” service, expect. For consumers, fast enough is what allows them to use the Internet in the ways they desire. What is fast enough does change over time as more and more uses for the Internet become common. This is why the FCC has changed the technical definition of broadband multiple times over the years as usage patterns and bandwidth requirements change. Currently, the FCC uses 25Mbps down/3 Mbps up as the baseline for broadband.

However, for some, like Jonathan Sallet, this is thoroughly insufficient. In his Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s, he instead proposes “100 Mbps symmetrical service without usage limits.” The disconnect between consumer demand as measured in the marketplace in light of real trade-offs between cost and performance and this arbitrary number is not well-explained in this study. The assumption is simply that faster is better, and that the building of faster networks is a mere engineering issue once sufficiently funded and executed with enough political will.

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But there is little evidence that consumers “need” faster Internet than the market is currently providing. In fact, one Wall Street Journal study suggests “typical U.S. households don’t use most of their bandwidth while streaming and get marginal gains from upgrading speeds.” Moreover, there is even less evidence that most consumers or businesses need anything close to upload speeds of 100 Mbps. For even intensive uses like high-resolution live streaming, recommended upload speeds still fall far short of 100 Mbps. 

“Competition” and “Overbuilding”

Similarly, no one objects to the importance of “competition in the broadband marketplace.” But what is meant by this term is subject to vastly different interpretations.

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The number of competitors is not the same as the amount of competition. Competition is a process by which market participants discover the best way to serve consumers at lowest cost. Specific markets are often subject to competition not only from the firms which exist within those markets, but also from potential competitors who may enter the market any time potential profits reach a point high enough to justify the costs of entry. An important inference from this is that temporary monopolies, in the sense that one firm has a significant share of the market, is not in itself illegal under antitrust law, even if they are charging monopoly prices. Potential entry is as real in its effects as actual competitors in forcing incumbents to continue to innovate and provide value to consumers. 

However, many assume the best way to encourage competition in broadband buildout is to simply promote more competitors. A significant portion of Broadband for America’s Future emphasizes the importance of subsidizing new competition in order to increase buildout, increase quality, and bring down prices. In particular, Sallet emphasizes the benefits of municipal broadband, i.e. when local governments build and run their own networks. 

In fact, Sallet argues that fears of “overbuilding” are really just fears of competition by incumbent broadband ISPs:

Language here is important. There is a tendency to call the construction of new, competitive networks in a locality with an existing network “overbuilding”—as if it were an unnecessary thing, a useless piece of engineering. But what some call “overbuilding” should be called by a more familiar term: “Competition.” “Overbuilding” is an engineering concept; “competition” is an economic concept that helps consumers because it shifts the focus from counting broadband networks to counting the dollars that consumers save when they have competitive choices. The difference is fundamental—overbuilding asks whether the dollars spent to build another network are necessary for the delivery of a communications service; economics asks whether spending those dollars will lead to competition that allows consumers to spend less and get more. 

Sallet makes two rhetorical moves here to make his argument. 

The first is redefining “overbuilding,” which refers to literally building a new network on top of (that is, “over”) previously built architecture, as a ploy by ISPs to avoid competition. But this is truly Orwellian. When a new entrant can build over an incumbent and take advantage of the first-mover’s investments to enter at a lower cost, a failure to compensate the first-mover is free riding. If the government compels such free riding, it reduces incentives for firms to make the initial investment to build the infrastructure.

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The second is defining competition as the number of competitors, even if those competitors need to be subsidized by the government in order to enter the marketplace.  

But there is no way to determine the “right” number of competitors in a given market in advance. In the real world, markets don’t match blackboard descriptions of perfect competition. In fact, there are sometimes high fixed costs which limit the number of firms which will likely exist in a competitive market. In some markets, known as natural monopolies, high infrastructural costs and other barriers to entry relative to the size of the market lead to a situation where it is cheaper for a monopoly to provide a good or service than multiple firms in a market. But it is important to note that only firms operating under market pressures can assess the viability of competition. This is why there is a significant risk in government subsidizing entry. 

Competition drives sustained investment in the capital-intensive architecture of broadband networks, which suggests that ISPs are not natural monopolies. If they were, then having a monopoly provider regulated by the government to ensure the public interest, or government-run broadband companies, may make sense. In fact, Sallet denies ISPs are natural monopolies, stating that “the history of telecommunications regulation in the United States suggests that monopolies were a result of policy choices, not mandated by any iron law of economics” and “it would be odd for public policy to treat the creation of a monopoly as a success.” 

As noted by economist George Ford in his study, The Impact of Government-Owned Broadband Networks on Private Investment and Consumer Welfare, unlike the threat of entry which often causes incumbents to act competitively even in the absence of competitors, the threat of subsidized entry reduces incentives for private entities to invest in those markets altogether. This includes both the incentive to build the network and update it. Subsidized entry may, in fact, tip the scales from competition that promotes consumer welfare to that which could harm it. If the market only profitably sustains one or two competitors, adding another through municipal broadband or subsidizing a new entrant may reduce the profitability of the incumbent(s) and eventually lead to exit. When this happens, only the government-run or subsidized network may survive because the subsidized entrant is shielded from the market test of profit-and-loss.

The “Donut Hole” Problem

The term “donut hole” is a final example to consider of how words can be used to confuse rather than enlighten in this debate.

There is broad agreement that to generate the positive externalities from universal service, there needs to be subsidies for buildout to high-cost rural areas. However, this seeming agreement masks vastly different approaches. 

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For instance, some critics of the current subsidy approach have identified a phenomenon where the city center has multiple competitive ISPs and government policy extends subsidies to ISPs to build out broadband coverage into rural areas, but there is relatively paltry Internet services in between due to a lack of private or public investment. They describe this as a “donut hole” because the “unserved” rural areas receive subsidies while “underserved” outlying parts immediately surrounding town centers receive nothing under current policy.

Conceptually, this is not a donut hole. It is actually more like a target or bullseye, where the city center is served by private investment and the rural areas receive subsidies to be served. 

Indeed, there is a different use of the term donut hole, which describes how public investment in city centers can create a donut hole of funding needed to support rural build-out. Most Internet providers rely on profits from providing lower-cost service to higher-population areas (like city centers) to cross-subsidize the higher cost of providing service in outlying and rural areas. But municipal providers generally only provide municipal service — they only provide lower-cost service. This hits the carriers that serve higher-cost areas with a double whammy. First, every customer that municipal providers take from private carriers cuts the revenue that those carriers rely on to provide service elsewhere. Second, and even more problematic, because the municipal providers have lower costs (because they tend not to serve the higher-cost outlying areas), they can offer lower prices for service. This “competition” exerts downward pressure on the private firms’ prices, further reducing revenue across their entire in-town customer base. 

This version of the “donut hole,” in which the revenues that private firms rely on from the city center to support the costs of providing service to outlying areas has two simultaneous effects. First, it directly reduces the funding available to serve more rural areas. And, second, it increases the average cost of providing service across its network (because it is no longer recovering as much of its costs from the lower-cost city core), which increases the prices that need to be charged to rural users in order to justify offering service at all.

Conclusion

Overcoming the problem of the rural digital divide starts with understanding why it exists. It is simply more expensive to build networks in areas with low population density. If universal service is the goal, subsidies, whether explicit subsidies from government or implicit cross-subsidies by broadband companies, are necessary to build out to these areas. But obfuscations about increasing “access to high-speed broadband” by promoting “competition” shouldn’t control the debate.

Instead, there needs to be a nuanced understanding of how government-subsidized entry into the broadband marketplace can discourage private investment and grow the size of the “donut hole,” thereby leading to demand for even greater subsidies. Policymakers should avoid exacerbating the digital divide by prioritizing subsidized competition over market processes.

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