Broadband infrastructure: Time for real policy

I'm late filing this column. Why? It's my AT&T U-Verse DSL connection again. Make that "yet again." I've been struggling with it all day.

I've discussed the saga of my latest DSL woes in several recent Gearhead columns, which included a review of the wretched Motorola NVG510 ADSL+ modem U-Verse customers get (I theorized about a couple of faults in the product and yesterday AT&T confirmed the issues exist) and I just posted a lengthy open letter to Randall Stephenson, Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and President of AT&T over on my Forbes blog.

The feedback from readers has been amazing and it says something that, so far, not one reader has defended AT&T. What also strikes me are all the letters from readers for whom a sub-standard DSL service would be a huge upgrade from what they currently have.

For example reader Ted Clee commented, "When reciting your woes with DSL speeds, please consider the feelings of us poor Texas country folk. When I connect from home, I am beyond the reach of DSL or cable. I recently upgraded my service level with my local wireless broadband ISP with whom I have a line-of-sight connection, and am now achieving 512Kbps (symmetric) for $50 monthly, a four-fold improvement over my previous sluggish connection of 128Kbps for $35. My only alternatives are dial-up or high-latency satellite. You could have it worse!"

Ted's right, I could have it worse and, indeed, we could all have it worse, but that's just the issue: If we, in general, were to have it worse, as a society we would miss out on enormous economic and cultural benefits.

It's all about getting online at a reasonable speed for a reasonable price. The growth in the online economy is still very healthy and, as a platform for business and social innovation, there's nothing that compares. But the consumer's problem is the lack of a national policy and a very weak competitive environment which makes for a patchy, poorly serviced, and inefficient national wired and wireless broadband infrastructure. This, in turn, limits the value that many consumers can get from Internet access.

Study: U.S. broadband adoption levels off

The bipartisan policy and political network of technology CEOs called TechNet recently released a report following the second anniversary of the Federal Communications Commission's National Broadband Plan (NBP) that shows the U.S. home broadband adoption rate increased anemically from 65% in 2009 to 68% in 2011.

I don't think that anyone could argue that consumer broadband adoption is a bad thing -- indeed, as the NBP asserted, broadband service is a "foundation for a better way of life" -- but I fear that we're not moving fast enough to make the NBP work as it could.

I see broadband in the same light I see the national highway system -- it's critical national infrastructure. Imagine the mess we'd have if the highway system had never been built by the government; today it would be a patchwork that wouldn't serve anyone particularly well. Which is how the U.S. broadband system is today: A monopoly driven mess.

The problem is that the big ISPs control the game and if they continue to get their way, both mobile and wireline broadband service will remain effectively non-competitive markets.

Doubt that to be the case? We'll talk about what Verizon wants to do next week ...

Gibbs is is slightly better connected in Ventura, Calif. than the folks in rural Texas. Tell backspin@gibbs.com how you fare and follow him on Twitter (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).

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