Study Backs Open Access to Broadband Networks

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Almost all of the most successful countries in broadband deployment have opened up the networks of their main carriers to competing service providers, according to a draft report put out for comment on Wednesday by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

The report (PDF) by Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society analyzes findings from a range of market-oriented democracies in an effort to understand what approaches have worked best in making sure citizens have adequate high-speed Internet access. The FCC is seeking public comments before Nov. 16.

The question of what makes for a successful national broadband policy has generated heated debate in the U.S. over the past several years, focusing on issues including net neutrality, the Universal Service Fund for rural phone service, and the proper role of government. The U.S. frequently is ranked below many other highly developed countries in studies of overall access to broadband.

Most of the highest-ranking countries use so-called "open access" policies, under which the incumbent carriers have to allow competitors to lease capacity on their networks and offer their own services, the Berkman report said. By contrast, the U.S. stands out for having instituted such rules in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 but backed away from them early in this decade, the report said.

This was the report's most surprising and significant finding, wrote Yochai Benkler, the principal investigator. The study looked at the "first-generation" transition from dial-up to broadband and the "second-generation" move to connectivity that is faster but also "just there," available to citizens without their having to think about it. Open-access policies played a major role in the success of many first-generation wired network transitions and is also aiding in second-generation wired rollouts, the report said. Japan, South Korea, Sweden, the Netherlands and the U.K. are among the countries that have used open-access rules to foster strong broadband markets, it said.

Results for wireless broadband policies were more mixed and harder to draw conclusions from, the report said.

Overall, the U.S. ranks in the middle of developed countries in most measures of broadband success, according to the Berkman study's analysis, which took into consideration data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and other sources, including tests of Internet access using The country ranked 15th on broadband penetration per 100 people but 19th in 3G (third-generation) wireless penetration. The picture was brighter for the U.S. in Wi-Fi hotspots per 100,000 people, with a ranking of 9th, and in median upload speeds and in a broad measure of prices for low-speed broadband, where it ranked fifth in both.

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