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We have a broadband problem in the U.S. There’s not enough real competition to drive either innovations or price reductions. This is also true of cable television, was true for landline phone service and will likely be true for wireless broadband service for a few more years. Most consumers have the choice of a cable provider or a telecommunications provider for their ISP, with each spurring the other to incremental changes where they compete and utterly abandoning areas where building out the infrastructure may not be profitable.
These are rational decisions in a capitalistic market, but given how important broadband is, I believe the government has a duty to meddle in it. So far, the Obama administration appears to be ready to do just that. Three distinct plans have been offered up as a way to reach President-elect Obama’s goal of 100 percent broadband coverage; below is a brief look at each of them.
The Wireless Plan: This plan involves the FCC auctioning off the AWS-3 spectrum in the 2.1 Ghz band and allocating 25 percent of that spectrum to provide free 768 kbps broadband to all of America wirelessly (a second, faster tier would cost $30 a month). A startup called M2Z would like to bid on this spectrum and build out the network, which will cost $3 billion to $5 billion. The pros of this plan are: The cost to taxpayers is nothing, except the loss of whatever revenue the spectrum might have fetched; there’s no cost to subscribers of the slow network; and the plan is supposed to cover 50 percent of the population in four years and the rest in 10. The cons: This network would be as slow as molasses, it could only realistically cover 95 percent of the population, and the web would be filtered.
The Watchdog’s Plan: The FreePress proposed a $44 billion plan that offers some tasty inducements to the incumbent broadband providers and would subsidize broadband access for those who cannot afford it. The goal is an all-fiber, 100 Mbps nationwide network. The idea here is if you build it, (and for some, subsidize it) they will come. The pros of this plan are the fast speeds and funding allocated for Congress to assess the true state of broadband access in America, but the cons include the price tag and the likelihood that the incumbents could warp this plan into something that sounds as good, but delivers far less.
The University Plan: EDUCAUSE, a group of more than 2,200 university IT managers who aim to promote higher education through access to technology, offered up a $100 million billion plan in January that also envisions symmetrical 100 Mbps pipes. The positives here are fat pipes, but the con is the fat price tag shared between the federal and state governments. Also there’s no clear indication as to how or who would manage the network.