Want Better Broadband? Unbundle the Local Loop.


Felix Salmon says we have plenty of bandwidth in America. Contra Tyler Cowen, we don’t need to spend a bajillion dollars rolling out a new nationwide network based on new pipes or new technology:

What we do need, on the other hand, is the ability of different companies to provide broadband services to America’s households. And here’s where the real problem lies: the cable companies own the cable pipes, and the regulators refuse to force them to allow anybody else to provide services over those pipes. This is called local loop unbundling, it’s the main reason for low broadband prices in Europe, and of course it’s vehemently opposed by the cable companies.

Local loop unbundling, in the broadband space, would be vastly more effective than waiting for some hugely expensive new technology to be built, nationally, in parallel to the existing internet infrastructure. The problem with Cowen’s dream is precisely the monopoly rents that the cable companies are currently extracting. If and when any new competitor arrives, the local monopolist has more room to cut prices and drive the competitor out of business than the newcomer has.

Cable companies have a thousand ready-made technical incantations to explain why they can’t possibly open up their networks to competitors. To listen to them, you’d think this would be akin to letting a five-year-old mess around with your electric wiring. This is delicate stuff! You can’t just let anyone start sending bits around on it.

It’s all special pleading, of course, of the same type that Ma Bell engaged in when people wanted to start putting answering machines on their phone lines. But everyone understands there would be technical requirements they’d have to meet, just as answering machines had to meet reasonable technical requirements back in the day. Regulators would have to be involved to make sure everyone plays nice with each other, but that’s far from impossible.

No, this is all about money, as you already guessed. Allowing other companies to use their last-mile pipes would (a) take away some of their broadband rents, (b) force cable companies to genuinely compete on price and features, and (c) allow competitors onto their network who couldn’t care less about cannibalizing TV business. If I were a cable company, I’d fight that tooth and nail too.

But that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to take their arguments seriously. The rest of us should be in favor of competition, not the profit margins of local cable TV monopolies.

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