The Federal Communications Commission pushes its universal service program the way a drug dealer pushes cocaine. To keep carriers in check, it has devised a system that some carriers believe they have to depend on, while the FCC sells them on the need to keep doing lines because it will give the carrier the confidence it needs to go out and serve unserved areas of the country. It’s time for carriers to break the dependency and free themselves from this regulatory crossfire. The carriers are not the bad guys when it comes to broadband adoption and I would go further and argue that they should not be responsible for financing its expansion. That responsibility should lie with online content producers, including companies that publish news, movies, and blogs.
Content providers, not broadband providers, are the primary beneficiaries of broadband adoption by the remaining 100 million households the FCC targeted in its national broadband plan. If a land developer wants to ensure people come to its development, buy houses, and live in the development, the land developer is going to build roads, lay conduits for communications and water, and maybe throw in a school building. Google, Amazon, and Netflix are not doing that with broadband, even though it’s broadband that brings them the eyeballs for their content.
Content providers are not doing that with broadband networks. With the help of the FCC, they have dumped the negative externality of adoption costs unto broadband providers. Net neutrality is famously their prime mechanism for doing so; by requiring that traffic from all content providers be given first class treatment on a broadband provider’s network. The other instrument, universal service via the moniker Connect America Fund, while reimbursing broadband providers for the cost of deploying facilities where their business models dare not tread, really takes final payment of this subsidy out of the wallets of the end using consumer.
The Connect America Fund had about $185 million left on the table for broadband providers to apply for and use to help with the cost of getting broadband to Farmer Smith and Dr. Jones so that they can deliver services to an increasingly demanding broadband consumer. These funds are also meant to help people access the Internet at high-speed so that they can take advantage of news,information, goods, and services provided by larger e-commerce entities including Amazon, Ebay, Walmart, and Google.
If these companies, who need the Internet like humans need air, want to reach their potential customers that bad, why don’t they invest the cash sitting on their books to subsidize broadband adoption? For example, Google, with four dollars of current assets with one dollar of current liabilities, has enough cash on hand to kick in and incentivize broadband adoption. And let’s not forget Facebook, with 1.1 billion subscribers, some of whom are connecting via wired and wireline broadband, has ten dollars in current assets for every dollar of current liability has enough liquidity and cash to kick in some direct funding for broadband adoption.
Carriers are just middlemen, unless they are endowed with content properties like Comcast. Being in the middle makes you a target for regulation, including the onerous requirements of a universal broadband service fund, but equity calls for the incidence of broadband adoption initiatives to fall on the entities with the most to gain, and those entities are the content providers and e-commerce companies selling goods and services.