Manufacturing (Broadband) Dissent

Gus Hurwitz —  9 October 2013

I have a new post up at TechPolicyDaily.com, excerpted below, in which I discuss the growing body of (surprising uncontroversial) work showing that broadband in the US compares favorably to that in the rest of the world. My conclusion, which is frankly more cynical than I like, is that concern about the US “falling behind” is manufactured debate. It’s a compelling story that the media likes and that plays well for (some) academics.

Before the excerpt, I’d also like to quote one of today’s headlines from Slashdot:

“Google launched the citywide Wi-Fi network with much fanfare in 2006 as a way for Mountain View residents and businesses to connect to the Internet at no cost. It covers most of the Silicon Valley city and worked well until last year, as Slashdot readers may recall, when connectivity got rapidly worse. As a result, Mountain View is installing new Wi-Fi hotspots in parts of the city to supplement the poorly performing network operated by Google. Both the city and Google have blamed the problems on the design of the network. Google, which is involved in several projects to provide Internet access in various parts of the world, said in a statement that it is ‘actively in discussions with the Mountain View city staff to review several options for the future of the network.’”

The added emphasis is mine. It is added to draw attention to the simple point that designing and building networks is hard. Like, really really hard. Folks think that it’s easy, because they have small networks in their homes or offices — so surely they can scale to a nationwide network without much trouble. But all sorts of crazy stuff starts to happen when we substantially increase the scale of IP networks. This is just one of the very many things that should give us pause about calls for the buildout of a government run or sponsored Internet infrastructure.

Another of those things is whether there’s any need for that. Which brings us to my TechPolicyDaily.com post:

In the week or so since TPRC, I’ve found myself dwelling on an observation I made during the conference: how much agreement there was, especially on issues usually thought of as controversial. I want to take a few paragraphs to consider what was probably the most surprisingly non-controversial panel of the conference, the final Internet Policy panel, in which two papers - one by ITIF’s Rob Atkinson and the other by James McConnaughey from NTIA – were presented that showed that broadband Internet service in US (and Canada, though I will focus on the US) compares quite well to that offered in the rest of the world. [...]

But the real question that this panel raised for me was: given how well the US actually compares to other countries, why does concern about the US falling behind dominate so much discourse in this area? When you get technical, economic, legal, and policy experts together in a room – which is what TPRC does – the near consensus seems to be that the “kids are all right”; but when you read the press, or much of the high-profile academic literature, “the sky is falling.”

The gap between these assessments could not be larger. I think that we need to think about why this is. I hate to be cynical or disparaging – especially since I know strong advocates on both sides and believe that their concerns are sincere and efforts earnest. But after this year’s conference, I’m having trouble shaking the feeling that ongoing concern about how US broadband stacks up to the rest of the world is a manufactured debate. It’s a compelling, media- and public-friendly, narrative that supports a powerful political agenda. And the clear incentives, for academics and media alike, are to find problems and raise concerns. [...]

Compare this to the Chicken Little narrative. As I was writing this, I received a message from a friend asking my views on an Economist blog post that shares data from the ITU’s just-released Measuring the Information Society 2013 report. This data shows that the US has some of the highest prices for pre-paid handset-based mobile data around the world. That is, it reports the standard narrative – and it does so without looking at the report’s methodology. [...]

Even more problematic than what the Economist blog reports, however, is what it doesn’t report. [The report contains data showing the US has some of the lowest cost fixed broadband and mobile broadband prices in the world. See the full post at TechPolicyDaily.com for the numbers.]

Now, there are possible methodological problems with these rankings, too. My point here isn’t to debate over the relative position of the United States. It’s to ask why the “story” about this report cherry-picks the alarming data, doesn’t consider its methodology, and ignores the data that contradicts its story.

Of course, I answered that question above: It’s a compelling, media- and public-friendly, narrative that supports a powerful political agenda. And the clear incentives, for academics and media alike, are to find problems and raise concerns. Manufacturing debate sells copy and ads, and advances careers.