“Capable” Is Not Good Enough: A Response to Lowell McAdam on Broadband in the United States

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There has been a spate of editorials recently from various telecommunications industry executives and analysts that try to paint a cheerful picture of the state of US broadband. Today's piece in the New York Times by Verizon head Lowell McAdam is the latest. These pieces generally operate by cherry-picking statistics and using rhetorical tricks to make their point. The op-ed format, of course, is hardly suited to the nuanced analysis that is necessary to understand the state of US broadband, and in particular how it compares to broadband in other advanced industrial economies. As a result, unpacking every claim in it that I have issue with would be a time-consuming enterprise. So instead of going through Mr. McAdam's piece claim-by-claim I'd like to call attention to one argument in particular that I think could lead people to the wrong conclusion.

McAdam writes:

More than 80 percent of American households live in areas that offer access to broadband networks capable of delivering data with speeds in excess of 100 megabits per second.

Yes, many Americans have access to cable networks, and cable networks are in principle capable of offering those speeds--once they've been upgraded to the latest DOCSIS, and assuming the plans are affordable. But this does not mean that broadband service with those speeds is actually available at consumer-level prices. He continues:

Contrast this with the European Union, where innovation and investment in advanced networks have stagnated under an onerous regulatory regime that limits investment and innovation, and where today only about 2 percent of households have access to broadband networks with 100-megabit-plus speeds.

Notice how he went from "capable of delivering" to "have access to networks with." Europe is being held to a higher standard here, where it's not enough to merely live in a place where there is a network "capable" of offering high speeds. Rather, in Europe, it only counts if the networks actually are offering those speeds.

McAdam's piece does not provide information on what percentage of Europeans "live in areas that offer access to broadband networks capable of delivering" 100-megabit broadband, or what percentage of Americans "have access to broadband networks with" those speeds.

There may be a grain of truth underlying McAdam's arguments. Compared with Europe as a whole, cable TV is more popular in the US. Free and pay satellite, and telco-provided IPTV are relatively more popular in Europe, as is analog cable TV and over-the-air broadcast. It is difficult to make generalizations about Europe because the situation varies country-by-country much more than the US varies state-by-state. But, as a result of the different ways that Europeans watch TV, only 18% of Europeans access the Internet via cable broadband--compared with 60% who use DSL.

The US is lucky that we have a more-developed coaxial infrastructure, an intermediate technology between fiber and twisted-pair copper, that is capable of being upgraded to some pretty good speeds. But this has nothing to do with broadband policy--it's more the result of the way that TV markets developed in the respective places.

Finally, if the thesis of McAdam's piece were true, we'd see significantly more fast telco broadband in the US, since telco companies tend to be more regulated in Europe. That said, if Verizon wants to back up the op-ed by significantly expanding its FiOS deployment, I would welcome that.

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