FCC Hearings: Where’s the Tech?

US_Capitol_South[1]The five Congressional hearings on the FCC in the last week yielded surprisingly little technical content. While I’ve learned not to be optimistic about the ability of the nation’s “expert communications agency” to discuss the Internet at something close to an expert level, this series of hearings didn’t even live up to my standards.

Apparently it’s not reasonable to expect the FCC to cite specific harms to innovation and the broader public interest, when it explains to Congress why it adopted such a strict set of regulations banning blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization. Most of what we got was repeated references to the comments of four million Americans, citations to cable TV comics, and some deeply emotional appeals that could have been made on any given day on a wide range of subjects. Essentially, a lot of garage talk.

Witnesses did broach the empirical line when they discussed the state of America’s Internet ecosystem. Commissioner Pai pointed out that the US Internet economy is the envy of the world, and Chairman Wheeler more or less agreed. It’s hard not to, given that US companies own 10 of the 15 biggest web sites and most of them don’t have serious rivals: Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and eBay aren’t going away any time soon, and no other country has produced a rival to the Microsoft and Apple desktop and laptop operating systems or the Android and iOS mobile OSes.

The US simply dominates the Internet. Given this dominance, it stands to reason that our broadband networks must be adequate to meet the needs of US Internet users; that’s practically a tautology.

But US dominance doesn’t help justify the reclassification of broadband from an information service to a common carrier utility, so the FCC and its allies have a quandary.

They were given an opening when Commissioner Pai said America’s broadband networks are the envy of the world. While it’s accurate to say that US broadband is the benchmark according to which other nations rate their own broadband services, it’s not accurate to say that the US leads the Ookla or Akamai rankings for broadband speed.

We do beat all the significant averages: the 34 Mbps Ookla (Speedtest.net) average for the US is ahead of the European Union (28.9), the G8 (29.9), the OECD (28.5), and APEC (25.3). But we don’t top the list for average national speed; indeed, the US ranks 27th of 200 nations, according to Ookla.

Akamai ranks us higher because it gives nations credit for their content delivery networks (CDNs). We rank 17th in the world in “average peak connection speed” (broadband pipe capacity) at 48.8 Mbps, and 12th in the world on the “average connection speed” of CDN-mediated web browsing at 11.5 Mbps per each parallel stream (a scenario where four connections are typically active at once). Akamai explains that average peak connection speed is most representative of broadband capacity, of course.

When we look at the nations that outrank the US in both Ookla and Akamai, it’s pretty easy to see why we are where we are:

  1. South Korea
  2. Hong Kong
  3. Japan
  4. Switzerland
  5. Sweden
  6. Netherlands
  7. Latvia
  8. Singapore
  9. Finland

The top nine are all small, densely populated, homogeneous nations that have applied subsidies to broadband markets in order to justify high speed networks to juice their economies, earn bragging rights over their neighbors, or overcome a dearth of cable infrastructure.

The list of rivals is especially interesting: Korea vs. Japan, Hong Kong vs. Singapore, and Sweden vs. Finland account for six of the top nine slots; Netherlands has a long-running rivalry with Belgium and Latvia is competing with Estonia and Lithuania. Switzerland has weak rivalries with Jersey and Luxembourg, but it’s also a wealthy nation that invests in national infrastructure from the top down.

The reality is that any of the top 50 nations – the top quarter in both lists – would be capable of competing with Silicon Valley if it had the right mix of policy, culture, skill, and capital. But they don’t have these ingredients, and no amount of residential broadband speed will make up for them. Contrary to popular myth, most innovation doesn’t come from basements and garages anyhow; it’s done in business settings.

So it’s not unreasonable to say that the top nine are ready to enter the future as soon as the US invents it.

This discussion omits mobile networks, which distorts the findings a great deal. The US is the indisputable leader in LTE network deployment, adoption, and utilization, but not in speed. To understand that, read my study, “G7 broadband dynamics: How policy affects broadband quality in powerhouse nations.” It comes down to business flexibility, spectrum policy, and network accessibility.