United States Establishes "Level Playing Field" in Broadband--Or Does It?

2 min read

Willie Jones covers transportation for IEEE Spectrum, and the history of technology for The Institute.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission unanimously decided in August to eliminate a rule that required the regional Bell operating companies to make their still-developing broadband networks available to rivals at discounted prices. Reversing a longtime stance, the FCC no longer maintains that offering consumers broadband services on attractive terms requires there to be competing providers of digital subscriber line, or DSL, service.

The Baby Bells had complained that having to open their networks to DSL rivals at prices set to guarantee the commercial viability of the competitors, while at the same time maintaining the networks themselves, discouraged them from investing in system upgrades that would allow them to compete effectively against cable companies. The Bells also complained that cable companies were exempt from the common carrier rules that the FCC enforces. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in June, called the Brand X ruling, affirmed the agency's classification of cable companies' broadband offerings as data services, meaning that the cable companies do not have to open their networks to competitors.

Brand X upheld the agency's drawing of a line between broadband services provided via cable versus broadband via telephone wires. Ironically, the FCC now is relying on the ruling for authority to erase that line. The agency is betting that consumers will benefit from allowing the telephone companies to slug it out with the cable companies on equal footing--and that this rivalry will be enough to protect consumers from dramatic price increases and anticompetitive business practices, such as network operators' blocking access to competitors' content.

Will the Supreme Court and FCC decisions give broadband adoption a boost? The proof will be in the pudding. Though broadband continues to spread in the United States, and the country still leads the world in the number of broadband connections, it has fallen far behind nations like South Korea and even Turkey in terms of market penetration and broadband growth. [see table below, "Accelerating Broadband Penteration

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