A Public Option for Broadband

A friend joked yesterday after a frustrating experience dealing with Comcast that “I think we need a public option for cable/wireless companies.”

But there’s a real issue here. The United States gets very mediocre results in terms of broadband price and speed compared to other industrialized countries. It’s true that some of this has to do with the difficulty of wiring a relatively sparsely-populated country. But lots of places in the United States are as dense as Stockholm, and in Sweden the average is 18.2 mbps, which you won’t find anywhere in this country. As Mark Loyd has written:

The United States will not meet President Bush’s goal of universal broadband by the end of 2007 — not by a long shot. The number of subscribers to Internet services is growing faster than the adoption of “dial-up,” yet for the most part these subscribers are not connected to the broadband technology Congress described in 1996 as a two-way communications service capable of high-speed delivery of data, voice, and video.

This failure to connect over half the country to advanced telecommunications service is not a technological failure. It is a 21st century public policy failure. In the 1990s, policies established by the Clinton administration to encourage public/private telecommunications partnerships, to connect schools and libraries to the World Wide Web, and to allow competitive service providers onto the networks of the local telephone monopolies all sped up the deployment of broadband around most of the nation. These policies were either deliberately abandoned or hampered by the Bush administration.


The increasing noise from Washington about the lack of a U.S. broadband policy obscures the fact that a policy choice was made by the Bush administration to rely entirely on “market forces” to determine how and where advanced telecommunications services would be deployed. That policy has failed.

It’s no coincidence that the cable company is always a go-to liberal example of private sector dysfunction. I would ditch Comcast in favor of a rival cable company except . . . there isn’t a rival cable company that served by neighborhood. Nor does my window face the right direction for DirectTV. So it’s Comcast or nobody, and thus the quality of Comcast’s offerings and customer service tends to be extremely bad. Appropriate regulation and public investment have a big role to play in this field.