Reminder: You Can't Stockpile Broadband

iStock_000005540809XSmallThere’s a thoughtful essay over at TechDirt by Derek Kerton comparing broadband pipe providers to gas stations. In it, he argues that sharing wireless networks is beneficial for carriers and consumers alike, because it reduces network costs and leaves carriers free to innovate and improve their applications. The analogy is seductive, but it neglects a key difference between gas and broadband: You can’t stockpile broadband the way you can fuel. When a pipeline springs a leak or shuts down, it can take a few hours or days for it to affect consumers, and in that time repairs can begin and fuel can be rerouted. But if a cellular network access point goes down, akin to a gas pipe springing a leak, it has immediate repercussions for everyone using the shared network, instead of just a percentage of people who happen to have chosen Carrier A over Carrier B.

That’s one reason why regulators aren’t keen to see operators share radio networks, because they realize that these things happen, and having an entire community go silent isn’t an ideal situation. Carriers are happy to share some tower infrastructure, but generally are not sharing their radio networks, partly because they believe it acts as a competitive advantage. Check out Verizon’s commercials to see this in action. The metaphor also seems a bit stretched given that pipelines can carry different versions of gasoline, rather than a truly indistinct commodity product such as what shared radio networks transport. So while there are potential advantages to sharing network infrastructure, both carriers and regulators have balked at creating a shared “pipeline” of wireless service for good reasons.