Largent Drops Ball on Broadband

Today, Steve Largent replied to my recent op-ed in the Seattle Times. As best I can tell from his letter to the editor, Largent––former Seattle Seahawk superstar turned top D.C. lobbyist for the wireless industry––missed my point about broadband in the U.S. So much so that I had to re-read my Times commentary to make certain Largent was writing about the same article.

I wrote about the need for the FCC to reclassify Internet access as a Title II service (a wonky regulatory move that would re-establish the FCC’s authority to ensure open, affordable services to users).


Largent responds by complaining that I “completely ignored the facts of today’s wireless industry” and then paints a pretty picture of America’s mobile marketplace.

My piece wasn’t a discussion of that. But if Largent insists, we can go there:

From a consumer viewpoint, the nation's wireless industry isn't as rosy as he imagines.

First: We don't have a highly competitive market for wireless providers. Two providers control well over 60 percent of the U.S. wireless market, and continue to gain on their competitors, leading to more concentration and fewer customer options down the road.

Second: Largent states, America has “more third-generation (3G) subscribers than any other nation.” So what? The U.S. is the third largest country in the world, and one of its richest. We should expect to have more 3G subscribers than those EU countries combined, based on sheer size alone.

Third: Largent boasts that consumers can “choose from almost 250,000 apps.” But why should wireless users settle with 250,000? Desktop and laptop computers can run millions of apps, and people don't need to overcome arbitrary impediments or gatekeeper reviews to develop new ones. Almost none of those apps were written by the mobile service providers, so I cannot fathom any reason why reclassification would discourage app generation.

Fourth: Largent claims that "all of the state-of-the-art handsets are launched first in the U.S." That’s preposterous. Japan, Korea and even Finland dominate device innovation; companies there launch high-tech phones that aren’t available (or imaginable) in this country. The iPhone is the first time in the last decade that the U.S. got ahead of the technological curve.

Fifth: Wireless providers do invest in networks, but they have spent the past few years investing less and less as a percentage of their revenue. AT&T has a broken network in San Francisco because it woefully and willfully underinvested for years, and is only now starting to correct the situation, thanks to rumors of a possible Verizon iPhone. For a time the company was discouraging New Yorkers from signing up for the iPhone because its area network was so starved of investment to meet demand.

Sixth: Largent’s assertion that Americans are "paying less" is flat out wrong. We absolutely pay more than subscribers in most countries. An OECD study compared costs for using a fixed amount of minutes – considered medium usage -- and found that consumers in the U.S. pay far more than most others. We also pay both to send and receive text messages – an “added fee” that few wireless users overseas have pay. It's the equivalent of having to pay the mailman to receive mail someone had already paid him to send.

Finally: No one is talking about “reversing the light regulatory model” at all, as Largent claims. Classification of broadband under Title II was the original intention of light regulation under the Communications Act. Reclassifying it as such, today, is about giving the FCC the ability to pursue a National Broadband Plan, and make basic non-discriminatory behavior the rules of the road, in the face of very real threats to that successful model.

Title II reclassification isn't about imposing a burdensome regulatory regime on wireless providers. It is about promoting competition and allowing innovation in the market to flourish. In other words, Title II will bring consumers the sort of choices and low costs that Largent’s corporate benefactors seem to abhor.

The Federal Communications Commission can fulfill the intention of Congress by ensuring that it has the authority to oversee the dominant communications medium of our time -- broadband.

But if they are persuaded at all by Largent, we’ll never advance toward our goal of a faster, more open and affordable Internet -- whether it's delivered via a wired or wireless connection.