Competition has a different meaning in the US


Broadband competition has two entirely different meanings depending on where you reside – inside or outside of United States.

For rest of the planet, competition means opening up the existing networks, forcing the incumbents to share the last mile resources with the upstarts, so to speak. In the US, it means creating a brand new network, something that has been a pet project of suddenly competition-happy FCC Chairman Kevin Martin.

Martin (version 2.0) has been pushing for the open networks in the 700 MHz band of wireless spectrum that is going to be available soon, once the television companies switch from analog broadcasts to digital broadcasts.

His attempts, twisted at best, are particularly grating because he helped create the duopoly that is pushing the Google Block (Verizon’s words, not mine) to lobby for open access on this new network. Not that the Google Block doesn’t have its own (and not consumer’s) vested interests behind their bid.

Many have forgotten that it was during Martin’s incumbent-accommodating tenure that line sharing or “international” style competition was sent the way of the dodo in the US. Many will point that the Telecom Act of 1996 was crap to begin with, and they would be right but it can’t distract from the fact that it was over-zealous regulators, lobbyists and dim-wits in Washington DC who mucked it up in the first place.

We had a mess then, and we have a mess now. Anyway if the competiton-enforcing policies were put in place to begin with, we wouldn’t be going through the current head-spins. It would have actually forced change, like it has in rest of the planet.

France, UK, Germany and several other countries have seen broadband progress (higher speeds, lower prices and increased adoption) mostly because of competition that forced the incumbents to get off their butt.

Instead of taking this more common sense approach, in the US, we have seen a strategy called the “politics of fear” being effectively used (with FCC doing nothing) to effectively choke the competition. (And no, this is not just telecom networks, but also cable networks.)

Instead we have a situation where a new network is going to be built (if the incumbents allow it), which in turn means billions of dollars spent on building a new infrastructure, and no one exactly clear about when the consumers are going to see the benefits.

But Chairman Martin has never cared about the people who sign his paycheck: The American People.


Shakir Razak

Thank god for the way things are in the UK.

Because of “The American Way” the well-being of the people of america will always be screwed-over by vested-interests.

The original copper-wire was laid aeons ago, and provided it’s multiple return substantially enough; to go the LLU route would simply be completing the aims of the original ma-bell break-up.
To require new cabling would simply be too substantial for anyone to ever get into the business -we saw in the 1st bubble how only down-town areas were mainly being fibre-cabled for corporate accounts, and that was it.

In the UK they have literally dozens of dsl providers, including the ability for naked dsl, and where even the cable company can use the copper network out of it’s area where the service difference is largely undifferentiated.
This actually works for the benefit of BT because of the dynamicism of competition and stable guaranteed income it provides it.

It’s ironic that America lead the world when it allowed customers to select a separate long-distance provider from the local baby-bell, but then it seems to have frozen.

If the FCC et al don’t go the full LLU route, the only other hope is that there might be commoditised Wi-Max, but with the capital required for that, is it going to be likely?

Which will only mean that America moves further into the backwater of international domestic infrastructure.

Korea has 100mbs BB; In the UK, the minimum is 2mbs, 24mbs for adsl2 and 50mbs for cable-BB, while countries like China are able to start with virgin networks with the latest technology.
Imagine how the world was looked-upon as when there was still wide use of dial-up, now imagine America being that!

Yours kindly,

Shakir Razak

Harold Feld

I know it is de riguer to hate Martin for the deregulation of DSL. But he inheritted that situation from Michael Powell. Martin had tried to derail the dereg to some degree by siding with the two Democrats in the 2003 Trienniel Review Order (which preserved some aspects of network unbundling). This was overturned by the DC Cir.

There is an unfortunate tendency to villanize Martin and lionize Powell because Martin presided over the DSL dereg engineered by Powell while refusing to push for spectrum reform — which was Powell’s saving grace among techies. IMO, this does Martin an injustice and obscures what is really going on at the FCC today.


Excuse me, Kevin Walsh, but competition doesn’t exist and doesn’t work in Telecomm BECAUSE they’re regulatory whores.

I also find it amazing that the telecomms say they own a network that was paid for 1000% by tax dollars (yes, the four digits aren’t a mistake.) Where is the broadband to every home they promised us in 1996 in exchange for the tax incentives they got? The US PEOPLE own the pipes AND the spectrum, not Ed f*king Whitacre or his clone replacement, or any of the other Corporate Stuffed Shirts. And the current way of doing things will ensure that the new pipes are never built, since scarcity favors the telecomms.

Om, I agree with everything you said, but in future would you refrain from calling people “consumers”??? That’s corporation-speak, as AT&T would use to refer to people, and it belittles and degrades us all. Thank you.

Kevin Walsh

Rahodeb disclaimer: I am not Kevin Martin

Here’s the crux of the issue: most efforts to spur competition in the US market involve taking an asset from one party (the incumbent) and giving it to another (the competitor). This act may be dressed up in positive language (“open up,” “unbundled,” etc.) but it doesn’t change what is fundamentally happening.

If the incumbent is a state-owned PTT this may not be a bad thing. But if the incumbent is a business, most individuals, even disgruntled customers of the incumbent, might cringe at this sort of heavy-handed government intrusion in the marketplace (and, at the risk of offending the tender sensibilities of some of the posters above, just look at the outcry resulting from Kelo v. New London).

We have true competition between telcos and cablecos because each owns and operates their own access networks. If we want more competition, we should motivate more businesses to build access networks (wireless, electric utilities, fiber overlay, etc.). Taking it from those that have already built it does not create competition.

David Beckemeyer

RIGHT ON OM! Kevin Walsh asounds like a spokseman for the FCC, if not Kevin Martin himself. :)

This is the #1 issue we have to get awareness of and grassroots support for. The argument that the duopoly is competition is ridiculous. I mean sure, we’re lucky the cablecos are offering at least some competition, and things would be even worse if we had only the telcos, but it is not the same as real competition. The simple contrast is the net itself. Imagine a net where our choice of websites/services were only those offered by telcos and cablecos. Contrast that with the net economy (and all the weatlth it has created) that we actually have.


Re: Kevin Walsh’s Kmart/Walmart analogy.

The anology also doesn’t fit because the stores that contain those shelves were not build with taxpayer-paid subsidies, like the telco networks were.

Jesse Kopelman

The problem, and it goes fr beyond telecom, is that their is no common sense lobby and even if there were it wouldn’t have any money. Meanwhile, there have historically always been plenty of people willing to spend money to convince you to go against common sense. As long as we allow money from lobbyist to be part of our political process, policy making will always remain divorced from common sense.

bertrand ribeiro

you wanna learn what the true meaning of uncompetitive is? Try looking north. In Canada we have two, that’s right TWO companies who control broadband (one has 100% of the cable network, the other has the entire DSL network). Oh, and by the way they also control cable tv, phone service, as well as the entire cellular network. How’s that for uncompetitive?

btw, that’s the same reason our equivalent of the iPhone data plan costs 299/mt and has an unlimited bandwidth of 500mb/month… and your unused minutes… don’t carry over.

Jay Srinivasan

FCC displaying acts of bureaucracy? Say it isn’t so…by no means am I an expert in this area but your points speak to the notion that wireless, telecom, etc. are better managed overseas. I always marvel at the phones available in UK and Asia and wonder why the US is never on the same page when it comes to things like this. We don’t have to pioneer everything.

DC Truth

Kevin Walsh, get your facts straight.

France Telecom is not owned by the French Government. They only have a 32.45% stake, not the two-thirds that you stated.

Your Wall Mart/K-Mart analogy is stupid. There’s no bottleneck in retail storefronts. There is a bottle neck in communications networks, and it is an industry with enourmous economies of scope and scale. “Building a network” as you propose is an economically inefficient allocation of resources (i.e. this industry exhibits natural monopoly/oligopoly traits).

Open Acces works precisely because of these features.

Cox and AT&T may appear to be competing, but they don’t compete head-to-head on the Internet product, instead focusing on service bundles. There’s an old antitrust saying, “Four is few, six is many”. The bottom line is the U.S. broadband market is slumbering because of anticompetitive behavior by telco and cable incumbents.

Astroturfer's Anonymous

It’s true: the TRA ended up forcing consolidation among telecom companies rather than fostering competition. However, you seem to refer to government owned telecom pejoratively. Take a look at South Korea, where the government stepped in to maintain internet infrastructure. They treat it as a public good, like a highway or public park. Increasingly, the internet is becoming a public good, so why not treat it as such?

No, instead we have incumbent infrastructure monopolists, in certain areas overlapping, creating duopolies. The problem with duopolies is that neither company has much incentive to compete. It is much easier to maintain prices and strive to increase margins in a duopoly.

Tom Coseven

Fact is that “duopoly” is fast becoming the norm around the world. It’s hard to find country with more that 20 mm population that still has a viable third wireline player (profitable with more than 10% market share). There are a lot of niche players that do apartment buildings or expensive neighborhoods in a few regions, but honest to goodness national 3rd pipe competitors are becoming like unicorn sightings.


Why isn’t Verizon Wireless Screaming?? Because it looks like they will have access to some 38Mhz of this not really “…Open Access” spectrum Mr Martin is proposing.
In short all that appears to be Open will be the 22Mhz in the Lower part of the(Congested)700Mhz Spectrum.
Another question, where will the Public Safety spectrum come from? I bet it will have to come out of the lower band 22Mhz and not the Upper Bands 38Mhz the big carriers want.
What will Google do here?? They could very well win a national license for a few Billion.
If they want to own a piece of the Last Mile (only part they are missing in their quest for dominance in Broadband Deliver Networks) they need to bid on and win a slice of the nationwide Upper Band. The Lower Band space will be to congested to be effective for real Broadband 2 way communications.


Kevin Walsh

Slow down there, Om. Keep in mind that in a substantial portion of the “rest of the planet” the telecom infrastructure is owned, wholly or in part, by the respective national governments. France Telecom, for instance, is still two-thirds owned by the government. It is quite reasonable for competitive providers to demand access to state-owned assets.

Here in the US, as a refresher, no telecom infrastructure is state-owned and we busted up the only telecom monopoly we had almost a quarter century ago. In this environment it is completely unreasonable for competitive providers to demand access to privately-held assets. This is why the bone-headed 1996 TRA was finally buried. After all, if the TRA was a good idea then why not expand it? Allow Kmart to use Wal-Mart’s shelf space. Or American Airlines to sell seats on Southwest. Or Microsoft to sell Zune music on iTunes. Or Yahoo to get paid for ads on Google.

Also, you use the word “duopoloy” pejoratively. As if it’s just a short step away from a monopoly and involves price fixing and other anti-competitive behavior. I live in an area covered by Cox Communications and AT&T and competition is alive and well. They’re constantly offering me more for less. If another provider wants my business they can do what the others have done—build a network.

Adrian Keys

“In the US, it means creating a brand new network….”

It reminds me of the oil situation…with billions of dollars invested in the current infrastructure…there is absolutely no motivation to change.

The solution: Come up with a million and one reasons for not doing what is right…

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