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Expert Opinion: Broadband Adventures in Wunderland: The (Expensive) Myth of Competition

The National Broadband Plan won’t do jack until more folks in Wunderland acknowledge and aggressively address one stark truth – broadband competition is mostly a myth, expensively maintained through lobbyists, think tanks and easily-influenced politicians. Until we get meaningful competition, a significant part – though mercifully not all – of Wunderland’s policies will result in dabbling around the edges rather than a meaningful advancement of broadband in the U.S.

Case in point: the misguided attempt by some of Wisconsin’s state legislators to prevent their state universities from using federal stimulus money to advance broadband is purely about AT&T clawing to maintain its near monopolistic hold over broadband there. In this and other states’ legislatures we see cable and telco duopolies roadblocking federal and local efforts to get communities the broadband they want and need.

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The National Broadband Plan won’t do jack until more folks in Wunderland acknowledge and aggressively address one stark truth – broadband competition is mostly a myth, expensively maintained through lobbyists, think tanks and easily-influenced politicians. Until we get meaningful competition, a significant part – though mercifully not all – of Wunderland’s policies will result in dabbling around the edges rather than a meaningful advancement of broadband in the U.S.

Case in point: the misguided attempt by some of Wisconsin’s state legislators to prevent their state universities from using federal stimulus money to advance broadband is purely about AT&T clawing to maintain its near monopolistic hold over broadband there. In this and other states’ legislatures we see cable and telco duopolies roadblocking federal and local efforts to get communities the broadband they want and need.

Counterproductive legislation is just one element of the fallout from a lack of competition. High prices, low network service quality, abysmal customer service and just plain lack of access plagues many rural and urban communities. Furthermore, policymakers’ dreams of a future in which broadband enriches the U.S. economically or otherwise are on shaky ground without the pressure of real competition to force/entice buildouts of networks capable of delivering on those dreams.

Incumbents and their apologists are loud and swift proclaiming the industry, particularly mobile broadband, is “vibrant” in its competitiveness. They shout, “we’re a veritable font of innovation!” (accompanied by loud chest thumping). They repeat that mantra “almost every America has dozens of providers from which to choose,” I guess – assuming we easily confuse quantity with quality.

Let’s look at the reality of broadband competition. You have to tear away two curtains hiding the man at the PR controls.

First, just because there are a lot of providers in a state doesn’t mean you have competition that leads to better broadband for a better price. Last year I partnered with data analytics firm ID Insight to release an analysis of competition within all 50 states based on data from millions of Internet users nationwide. We ranked the states based on how closely the market share of their respective top 10 competitors came to 10 percent for each competitor. The viability of competition depends on more than market share, of course, but we took this approach to give the discussion of competition some context and consistency.

Even in the 10 states where the competitors are most evenly matched in market share, as you go down the list the combined market shares of the top three competitors moves into the high 70s. In Michigan and Iowa, states that ranked 21 and 22 on the list, the combined market share percentages of the top three competitors break solidly into the 80s.

In state 24, Wyoming, and on down the list we have what are pretty much duopoly states. The top two competitors’ market share percentages collectively are in the mid 70s moving toward the 80’s (often one’s a wireless and one’s a cable provider, and it’s questionable they really compete with each other that much). For the bottom five states (Delaware, Colorado, Maryland, Hawaii and Rhode Island), their duopolies range from 89 percent to 95 percent market share.

If you practice the fine art of rational thinking, you’ll be hard pressed to believe that 60 or 70 providers in a state means you have anything resembling “robust” competition if 50 or 60 of them are fighting for 15 percent of the market. Drill down to the county level and often you don’t even see three or four of the top ten providers. Sometimes two, occasionally just one, at which point their market share is even greater.

It’s at this local level you find frequent stories such as this from Sibley County, Minn. For more than two-and-a-half years, these communities pleaded with providers to partner with them, offering incentives that included most of the network’s sales revenues. They offered to put up the money to build the network. Yet the best broadband these towns currently receive is DSL service at 256 kilobits per second (Kbps) downstream and 128 Kbps upstream. However, let one competitor pop up on the scene offering fiber services, these incumbents fall all over themselves with special offers and high speeds. We see it happen time and again.

Here’s where you yank away the other curtain around the competition myth. To do so, you need to get into the market and the mind of the people who actually pay for and use what passes for broadband services in their area. Wunderland is fixated with broadband adoption, but many folks miss the boat completely when it comes to broadband utilization. Utilization means using broadband to perform tasks and run applications important to economic development, education, job skills improvement, delivering better medical services, etc. It matters little if you adopt a broadband service that’s inadequate for the utilization needs at hand.

In numerous areas competition is low or effectively nonexistent when you look at how few Internet access providers have any meaningful clout within those areas. But when you look at the more important question of, can a community get broadband that’s sufficient to do the tasks deemed important for its economic enrichment, you see the true lack of competitive forces. Slip out from under the debilitating influence of industry lobbyists with their fairy tales of robust competition and spend some days visiting communities and listening to their stories.

Over 130 communities, such as Chattanooga, Tenn., own their own broadband networks, plus communities that have formed co-ops and nonprofit entities to run their networks. Look at the collective benefits Chattanooga’s gigabit community network offers its constituents (part 2 of the story here). You see that achieving communities’ various economic dreams requires a lot of broadband capacity, but competition to provide this kind of capacity is nonexistent in so many parts of the U.S. That’s why several thousand communities (not hundreds, thousands) are champing at the bit to be like Chattanooga, Powell, Wyo., Ontario County, N.Y., Santa Monica, Calif. and the others. They want to provide the competition that addresses utilization, not just adoption.

More people in Wunderland have to grab this bull by the horns, or some other vital area, and kick it in the butt. People need to take a two-by-four and beat back these attempts to undermine and circumvent programs that fund broadband efforts that introduce much needed competition. Let’s see some profiles in courage and toss this AT&T/T-Mobile merger out the back door. Encourage (incentivize) companies like Google and Corning to partner with communities to put fiber infrastructure in place. If you’re going to do more than just pretend to reform USF, take that $4 billion that comes directly out of taxpayers’ pockets and put it into communities to solicit and fund the best solutions they can find someone willing to provide.

Either we get serious about competition or we stop pretending we’re serious about broadband.

Craig Settles is a broadband business strategist, marketing expert, author and internationally renowned speaker.  Craig helps organizations use broadband technologies to improve government and stakeholders’ operating efficiency, as well as local economic development.

 

 

 

 

Broadband's Impact

Baltimore Needs Grassroots Help to Bridge Digital Divide, Experts Say

‘Baltimore lags behind many cities when it comes to the number of households with home internet connections.’

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Photo of Jason Hardebeck, director of Baltimore's Office of Broadband and Digital Equity

WASHINGTON, July 5, 2022 – Local leaders from Baltimore said at a Benton Institute event that there needs to be an alignment with the community and leadership when it comes to closing the digital divide.

“Baltimore lags behind many cities when it comes to the number of households with home internet connections,” said Amalia Deloney from the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, which invests in projects to improve the quality of life in the city. The foundation estimates that 74,116 households don’t have internet access.

The event’s speakers pointed to digital redlining, in which segments of racial minority and lower income Americans are disconnected from services or can be considered living in low priority areas.

Jason Hardebeck, director of Baltimore’s Office of Broadband and Digital Equity, said the city is a “pioneer in redlining,” and “a century later, we still see the effect on the digital divide.”

To address this, Deloney said the foundation’s approach to the digital divide in Baltimore by starting at the social level through its Digital Equity Leadership Lab. This is a program for Baltimore residents to “increase their understanding of the internet and strengthen their ability to advocate for fast, affordable and reliable broadband.”

The program aims to train and build leadership within the community to advocate for closing the digital divide. It points to a strategy of bringing “advocates together with community leaders,” as “digital equity is social, not a technological problem,” said Colin Rhinesmith, founder and director of the Digital Equity Research Center.

Michelle Morton from the National Telecommunications Infrastructure Association also said local leaders need to work with community members to have a bottom-up approach. “You have to work with the people doing the work on the ground.

“Their voices matter,” said Morton.

Mayor Brandon Scott has allocated $35 million from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act to close the digital divide across Baltimore “by the end of this decade.”

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Education

Metaverse Can Serve as a Supplement, Not Replacement, For Educators: Experts

The virtual world where avatars can meet as if they were in real life can be a companion for education.

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Screenshot of the Brookings event Tuesday

WASHINGTON, June 29, 2022 – Experts said at a Brookings Institution event said Tuesday that while the “metaverse” can go a long way toward improving education for some students, it should serve as a supplement to those educational goals.

The metaverse refers to a platform of 3D virtual worlds where avatars, or virtual characters, meet as if they were in the real world. The concept has been toyed with by Facebook parent Meta and is being used as a test for the educational space.

“The metaverse is a world that is accessible to students and teachers across the globe that allows shared interactions without boundaries in a respectful optimistic way,” Simran Mulchandani, founder of education app Project Rangeet, said at Tuesday’s event.

Panelists stated that as the metaverse and education meet, researchers, educators, policymakers and digital designers should take the lead, so tech platforms do not dictate educational opportunities.

“We have to build classrooms first, not tech first,” said Mulchandani.

Rebecca Kantar, the head of education at Roblox – a video game platform that allows players to program games – added that as the metaverse is still emerging and being constructed, “we can be humble in our attempt to find the highest and best way to bring the metaverse” into the classroom for the best education for the future.

Anant Agarwal, a professor at MIT and chief open education officer for online learning platform edX, stated the technology of the metaverse has the potential to make “quality and deep education accessible to everybody everywhere.”

Not a replacement for real social experiences

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, senior fellow of the global economy and development at the Center for Universal Education, said that while the metaverse brings potential to improve learning, it is not a complete replacement for the social experience a student has in the classroom.

“The metaverse can’t substitute for social interaction. It can supplement.”

Mulchandani noted the technology of the metaverse cannot replace the teacher, but rather can serve to solve challenges in the classroom.

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Digital Inclusion

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel Emphasizes 100 Percent Broadband Adoption

‘It’s about making sure wireless connections are available in 100 percent of rural America,’ said the chairwoman.

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Photo of Kelley Dunne, CEO of AmeriCrew, leading panel on workforce issues at the Rural Wireless Infrastructure Summit by Drew Clark

PARK CITY, Utah, June 28, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission is making progress towards bringing “affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to 100 percent of the country,” Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said at the Rural Wireless Infrastructure Summit here on Tuesday.

Rosenworcel pointed to the $65 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act now being deployed across the country, with a particular focus on unconnected rural and tribal areas.

Although the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration will take the lead with these funds, the FCC’s new broadband coverage maps will be important in implementing state digital equity plans.

In her remarks, Rosenworcel also discussed how the upcoming 2.5 GigaHertz spectrum auction will involve licensing spectrum primarily to rural areas.

At the July FCC open meeting, said Rosenworcel, the agency is scheduled to establish a new program to help enhance wireless competition. It is called the Enhanced Competition Incentive Program.

The program aims to build incentives for existing carriers to build opportunities for smaller carriers and tribal nations through leasing or partitioning spectrum. Existing carriers will be rewarded with longer license terms, extensions on build-out obligations, and more flexibility in construction requirements.

“It’s about making sure wireless connections are available in 100 percent of rural America,” she said.

She also indicated her commitment to work with Congress to fund the FCC’s “rip and replace” program to reimburse many rural operators’ transitions from Chinese-manufactured telecommunications equipment. She also touted the role that open radio access networks can plan in more secure telecommunications infrastructure.

In other news at the conference, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr addressed the role of funding broadband operations in rural America, the challenges of workforce training, and ensuring that rural carriers have access to high-cost universal service support.

In a session moderated by AmeriCrew CEO Kelley Dunne, panelists from the U.S. Labor Department, the Wireless Infrastructure Association and Texas A&M Extension Education Services addressed the need to offer a vocational career path for individuals for whom a four-year degree may not be the right choice. AmeriCrew helps U.S. military veterans obtain careers in building fiber, wireless and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark contributed to this report.

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