Putting the ‘Europe is Better’ Argument to Rest

There’s nothing like a little international competition to motivate action. Take Sputnik. Or JKF’s “missile gap.” Or Finland’s recent schooling of the time-to-watch-from-the-sidelines Olympic hockey team.

The battle over global broadband offers a prime example, Washington-style. Many broadband boosters here in our nation’s capital lament a Bandwidth Gap with other nations, including many in the European Union. Some have even suggested that Europe offers the best model for future American broadband policy.

It is worth observing, however, that many European experts disagree. For example, in September European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes lamented:

The world envied Europe as we pioneered the global mobile industry in the early 1990s (GSM), but our industry often has no home market to sell to (for example, 4G).  Consumers miss out on latest improvements or their devices lack the networks needed to be enjoyed fully. These problems hurt all sectors and rob Europe of jobs it badly needs. EU companies are not global internet players… 4G/LTE reaches only 26% of the European population. In the US one company alone (Verizon) reaches 90%!”

This Battle of the Bandwidth is nicely highlighted in a new report from AEI’s Roslyn Layton that focuses on the important contrasts between European and American broadband policy. Those differences are profound, focusing on incentives for private investment.  Only 2% of European households subscribe to Internet services offering connections faster than 100Mbps, according to the EU’s 2013 Digital Agenda Scoreboard. While Europe’s share of broadband investment is less than 20%, the U.S. attracts 25% with a smaller population — per capita investment here is double that in Europe. The EU estimates that it faces a shortfall of €110–170 billion ($150–230 billion) by 2020 if it is to reach its connectivity goals.

In America that money is being put to work, most aggressively by those facing the least legacy regulation, such as IP networks, cable networks and wireless. Such light-touch regulation has fueled robust intermodal competition in the development and deployment of next-generation broadband networks to satisfy a seemingly bottomless consumer appetite.

Those who criticize the state of broadband in our nation typically focus only on one technology, fiber to the home, and choose to ignore the vibrant intermodal competition — such as cable, wireless — that has delivered cutting edge broadband services that are available to millions of Americans, yet largely unavailable to Europeans. 

Some criticize America’s delivery broadband service in comparison to the Nordic countries in Europe. Yet, a closer look reveals that the successes in these countries may actually be a result of having policies that look similar to the policies here at home.  As Layton notes, Denmark, a country with high broadband penetration, has demonstrated two keys for success:

1. Technological agnosticism. No one broadband technology is favored over another.

2. Market-led broadband development. The government does not decide which technology citizens should have, nor does it give government subsidies for broadband deployment.

Layton’s right.  It’s time to put the “Europe is better” argument to rest.  Ultra-fast broadband for everyone sustained and serious levels of investment, enabled by policies that promote investment and competition.

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