Australia may be low on the broadband ladder but we are in good economic company: the US. In the New York Times, Paul Krugman wonders how the US came to fall behind in broadband. And unlike our politicians, he doesn’t point to a lack of government money but instead a lack of adequate regulation and competition policy.
What happened to America’s Internet lead? Bad policy. Specifically, the United States made the same mistake in Internet policy that California made in energy policy: it forgot — or was persuaded by special interests to ignore — the reality that sometimes you can’t have effective market competition without effective regulation.
You see, the world may look flat once you’re in cyberspace — but to get there you need to go through a narrow passageway, down your phone line or down your TV cable. And if the companies controlling these passageways can behave like the robber barons of yore, levying whatever tolls they like on those who pass by, commerce suffers.
America’s Internet flourished in the dial-up era because federal regulators didn’t let that happen — they forced local phone companies to act as common carriers, allowing competing service providers to use their lines. Clinton administration officials, including Al Gore and Reed Hundt, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, tried to ensure that this open competition would continue — but the telecommunications giants sabotaged their efforts, while The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page ridiculed them as people with the minds of French bureaucrats.
And when the Bush administration put Michael Powell in charge of the F.C.C., the digital robber barons were basically set free to do whatever they liked. As a result, there’s little competition in U.S. broadband — if you’re lucky, you have a choice between the services offered by the local cable monopoly and the local phone monopoly. The price is high and the service is poor, but there’s nowhere else to go.
Meanwhile, as a recent article in Business Week explains, the real French bureaucrats used judicious regulation to promote competition. As a result, French consumers get to choose from a variety of service providers who offer reasonably priced Internet access that’s much faster than anything I can get, and comes with free voice calls, TV and Wi-Fi.
It’s too early to say how much harm the broadband lag will do to the U.S. economy as a whole. But it’s interesting to learn that health care isn’t the only area in which the French, who can take a pragmatic approach because they aren’t prisoners of free-market ideology, simply do things better.
We face the same problem here in Australia. If we have a broadband problem it is because we need to strengthen our regulatory muscle. Even the US has more hope because it has more competition. Here is where we are languishing behind.