By Karl Bode
In 2009, the FCC funded a Harvard study that concluded (pdf) that open access broadband networks (letting multiple ISPs come in and compete over a central, core network) resulted in lower broadband prices and better service in numerous locations worldwide. Of course when the FCC released its “National Broadband Plan” back in 2010, this realization (not to mention an honest accounting of the sector’s limited competition) was nowhere to be found. Both parties ignored the data and instead doubled down on our existing national telecom policy plan: letting AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast do pretty much whatever they’d like.
Since then, “open access” has become somewhat of a dirty word in telecom, and even companies like Google Fiber — which originally promised to adhere to the concept on its own network before quietly backpedaling — are eager to pretend the idea doesn’t exist. Why? Because having ISPs compete in layers over a centralized network may improve service, boost speeds, and reduce prices, but it would eat into monopoly revenues and you simply can’t have that.
Of course that doesn’t mean the model doesn’t work. The original 2009 Harvard study looked at numerous global instances where it worked really well to disrupt the status quo. This week, the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society released a new report (pdf) finding that, once again, open access networks could be a productive path out of the current monopolistic logjam that is the broken U.S. broadband market. Specifically when they’re used for so-called “middle mile” broadband networks, with the support of local communities:
“Experience has shown that state and local governments can experiment with and facilitate pragmatic solutions, such as the implementation of open-access, middle-mile networks that help ensure that everyone can use High-Performance Broadband—from building networks that offer affordable broadband service to ensuring that people, such as the newly unemployed, have the resources and skills to use broadband. Perhaps most importantly, state and local governments are nearby, not thousands of miles away, and they hear the voices of local communities.”
Open access also works well in last-mile (closer to your home) solutions. The town of Ammon, Idaho showcases precisely why telecom giants despise this model: it brings additional competition to bear on captive markets. The town built a locally owned 30 mile fiber network, then invited ISPs to come in and compete under an open access model. Locals currently have four ISPs to chose from (with more presumably coming), and users can switch ISPs in a matter of seconds.
Open access broadband works. Data continually shows it, and such a model would come in handy during a, say, national health crisis that’s busy showcasing how broadband is an essential lifeline to work, education, and survival. Starting small and building outward, government could work with localities and smaller, hungrier telecoms to expand this idea. But federal policymakers don’t embrace such a model because, again, monopolies don’t like competition. And when you’re so politically powerful that you literally write federal and state telecom law with a relentless eye on hamstringing competition, you tend to get what you want.