Blair Levin and Reed Hundt collaborated on an op-ed piece for MercuryNews.com laying out some tax and regulatory policy initiatives that they hope can spur additional investments in networks that deliver not only communications, but can also be used for efficient use of our energy grid.
What caught my specific attention was an observation by Messrs. Levin and Hundt:
“The knowledge platform-the Internet and everything that rides on it – should be expanded so that the United States leads the world in delivering education, health care, public safety, and all government services from the cloud to broadband connected devices.”
I wonder if, in the argument for policies that would spur broadband adoption, we are failing to start the discussion at the very beginning of the adoption process. I wonder if we are forgetting to apply a basic supply and demand model to the discussion.
Broadband adoption begins with the supplier of content. The content producer, whether a retail service, media company, academic institution, etc., constantly seeks techniques and technology that make delivery of content less expensive. This was the case in the 1990s when Vice-President Al Gore was given the task of incorporating the Internet into the federal government’s communications system. This was the model within which Amazon was created.
On the other end of the knowledge commerce conduit is the end user or consumer of the content. Broadband is important on this end not primarily because it puts information in the consumer’s hands (the consumer has been getting information from other sources and mediums in the past), but it justifies or completes the content providers cost model.
In the middle is the carrier, the value of whose network increases with the addition of more end users, yes, but more importantly with the addition of more content providers. Consumers have to have a reason to join the network, and the value of joining is directly related to the type, amount, and quality of information circulating on the Internet.
The Federal Communications Commission’s adoption policy has been focusing on subsidizing the build-out of networks via universal service funds, expecting not only to provide a mechanism for getting broadband into underserved, unserved, or high-cost rural areas, but indirectly reducing the costs of subscribing to broadband access services. While this approach may have contributed to increased subscriber penetration for plain old telephone service, broadband is a different beast.
The best policy for broadband would be a free market, non-interventionist approach allowing all three major market participants to enter agreements for the creation, delivery, and consumption of knowledge and information passing over the net. If politics forces government intervention to create a market (an unfortunate scenario), then government should act merely as a clearinghouse for exchanging information on the pros and cons of broadband adoption, both by content providers and content consumers.
This is where the emphasis of policy should be placed. Any other intervention, including a universal service mechanism of any kind would only distort market signals and lead to inefficient pricing, the type of pricing that would not fully account for the demand for broadband in the first place.