Democracy & Technology Blog Kevin Martin: Right Track, Wrong Stats

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has now offered the closest thing to a constructive and coherent broadband policy the U.S. has seen in the decade following the ’96 Telecom Act. (Reed Hundt and William Kennard had coherent, but disastrous policies.) In a statement following the Supreme Court’s Brand X decision and in a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week, Martin said the communications marketplace is vibrantly competitive and that “legacy” telecom rules should be pruned or eliminated to encourage broadband investment. This is welcome, if long overdue, news.

Martin errs, however, in comparing U.S. broadband favorably with Asia. Martin lauds new FCC numbers showing rapid growth of U.S. “broadband” users — the fastest growth rate in the world, he says. The real metric, however, is not “broadband” users, but last mile bandwidth per capita. The FCC’s silly 200 kilobit per second definition of broadband makes the U.S. look far better than it is. Some American cable modems that now approach 6 megabits per second might be considered broadband, but by Asian standards the U.S. has very little broadband at all. Martin says Massachusetts has just as much broadband as Japan — comparable in population density — but a 750 kilobit DSL user in Massachusetts is not the same as a 20 megabit VDSL or fiber user in Japan.

Japan, in fact, has some 20 times the per capita last mile bandwidth of the U.S. (including 3G wireless). South Korea has about 40 times America’s per capita bandwidth. Adjusting for population density, these Asian nations still have at least 10 times more.

Martin’s policy is finally on the right track, but deluding ourselves with misleading statistics will only yield further incremental policy changes when what is truly needed is a swift, far reaching, and strategic unleashing of America’s communications companies and entrepreneurs.

-Bret Swanson

Bret Swanson

Bret Swanson is a Senior Fellow at Seattle's Discovery Institute, where he researches technology and economics and contributes to the Disco-Tech blog. He is currently writing a book on the abundance of the world economy, focusing on the Chinese boom and developing a new concept linking economics and information theory. Swanson writes frequently for the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal on topics ranging from broadband communications to monetary policy.