Internet Society panel focuses on rural and low-income broadband access

By: Libby Jacobson

Last Friday, the Internet Society held a panel discussion on the state of competition in the U.S. broadband market. The discussion was informative, and the audience offered some great questions as well. Some highlights from the event:

  • Jodie Griffin, an attourney with Public Knowledge, stated early on that universal access to quality services should be a keystone of any U.S. broadband policy.

  • Robert C. Atkinson of CITI seemed to agree with Ms. Griffin on that point, but argued that a national policy that treats Manhattan N.Y., the same as Manhattan, NV (population: 124) would be disastrously inefficient and wasteful. He advocated for what he called “circumstantial regulation,” or local policy solutions that take into account the specific circumstances of the impacted area.

  • Robert Atkinson of Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (yes, there were two “Robert Atkinsons.” For clarity, I’ll refer to the ITIF one as “Rob,” as his name placard stated) noted that U.S. adoption remains lower than the rates in other countries simply because computer adoption is lower in America. He also questioned whether the broadband stimulus grants, such as the one for the Chattanooga gigabit network, were the best uses of taxpayer money when there are still low-income families who not only lack access, but don’t even have a computer in their homes. He cited the ITIF’s recent report on broadband speeds, noting that the U. S. is doing well with regard to investment, prices, and availability.

  • Jeff Eisenach, a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, compared the European model of unbundling with the U.S. model, highlighting recent remarks from European regulators acknowledging that their model is failing to spur investment. Robert Atkinson, who had formerly worked for an early U.S. competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC), concurred, adding that mandatory unbundling in the U.S. had destroyed the incentive for CLECs to build their own networks.  

  • All panelists seemed to agree that there’s still a problem in America with low-income families lacking service. Various proposals were mentioned, including a school lunch-like program for low-income families with children, or making the Lifeline program technology-neutral and thus able to cover broadband or mobile service.

  • Rob Atkinson compared proposals of a government-funded broadband network to the U.S. highway system, noting that the government spends 1/3 of what it ought to be spending annually on the construction and maintanence of American roadways. He said waiting for congress to pass an appropriations bill that included broadband funding would be a nightmare for U.S. connectivity.

  • In addition to the low-income access problem, the panelists also acknowledged that rural access remains scant in some parts of the U.S. Jeff Eisenach proposed that satellite Internet access is a viable solution to many rural access problems. Though satellite technologies have not historically been comparable to basic landline broadband, today’s newer satellites much faster services that have lower latency, and which allow users to download as much content as they want at certain times of the day. Panelists also acknowledged the capability of LTE to offer rural users high quality broadband, like Verizon’s “Home Fusion” technology.

  • Moderator Dave Burstein (author of DSL Prime, a top read for engineers and policy wonks) interjected at the end to say that, despite warnings from gigabit-enthusiast/industry critic Susan Crawford, all bandwidth-intensive consumer applications available today and in the near-to-medium future will work just fine over 50/75 Mbps connections.

Overall, it was an interesting, and at times very lively, discussion. Anybody interested in U.S. broadband policy should check out the videos, available here.

Libby Jacobson focuses on social, digital and external communications for Verizon’s federal legislative, regulatory, and public policy teams. Libby is also the curator and editor of Verizon’s Public Policy blog, the hub for Verizon’s positions on regulatory and legal issues surrounding the information and communications technology industry. Before joining Verizon in 2012, Libby learned the digital communications craft as an analyst with a DC-area, social media PR firm, while moonlighting as a blogger. Libby lives and works in Washington DC, and is a Verizon FiOS enthusiast.