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France prepares to overtake US on broadband front

The runners and riders revealed
Mon Jul 11 2005, 09:36
THE UNITED STATES was rated 16th in the world for broadband penetration in the top 20 economies around the world at the end of 2004, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), but it's likely those statistics will be subject to some significant upward shifting by mid-2007. And it's going to happen in spite of a lot of political chest beating and calls to spend more taxpayer dollars.

Even before we pull out the old crystal ball, a look at the yardstick is instructive. The ITU expresses the statistics in terms of broadband subscribers per 100 inhabitants, with Korea top ranked at 24.9 subs per 100, Hong Kong, China at number two at 20.9 subs, the Netherlands taking the European crown at 19.4, Denmark at 19.3, and Canada at 17.6. Hong Kong isn't really a country, but a special administrative region of China, but why quibble? If it got bumped, everyone would move up only one slot in the ratings. Down towards the bottom, the US has 11.4 subs per 100, France is at 11.2, and the UK is at 10.3. No doubt some American politicians would be outraged to learn that France is 0.2 subscribers away from overtaking them in the stats.

The ITU's definition of broadband is defined into only two categories, "DSL" and "Cable modem and other," and doesn't even count the rollout of mobile 3G cellular services into their accounting. It's a strange stance for an organisation that is charged with managing radio frequency between nations not to tally up and sort out RF-based broadband efforts, be they mobile wireless 3G schemes, licensed wireless schemes, or a good chunk of unlicensed wireless efforts. Even if they are "other."

Instead, the world is divided into "DSL" (copper wire/phone company-controlled) and "Cable modem and other" (Not phone company-controlled). Even the US Federal Communication Commission (FCC) breaks out broadband statistics in terms of DSL, cable modem, and other, and goes on to define what they mean by "other" as a growing hash of satellite, terrestrial wireless, fibre, and power line connections.

Within the United States, it's the "other" and 3G wireless schemes that will have significantly huge growth over the next two years. Three of the four major phone companies (Bell South, SBC, Verizon) in the US have made public commitments to deploy both fiber optic cable and high-speed DSL services to households over the next several years because they want to steal back some of the dollars that cable companies are taking from them. Cable companies are offering voice services and high-speed Internet, taking away business from the phone companies. The phone companies have, after years of token lip service, finally decided to deploy a network capable of delivering video services to American households, so they can steal away cable company customers.

Fibre has been the big buzzword the phone companies have trumpeted, but the reality is that fiber will not be brought to every household. The vast majority of households that will get access to telco TV services will likely have them delivered through DSL (i.e. copper) services of 20-30 Mbps. Needless to say, the rat race between cable and phone companies will end up driving dueling packages of higher-speed service and/or lower prices per megabit for many consumers. In my own backyard, just the threat of competition from Verizon has moved Cox Communication to hike their broadband speeds from 3 Mbps to 5 Mbps over the past 12-18 months while keeping prices the same.

Broadband wireless continues to grow, with both licensed and unlicensed schemes booming. Telephone companies Bell South and Verizon have started deploying broadband wireless networks in areas where they don't want to spend the dollars to deploy DSL and municipalities as large as the city of Philadelphia view Wi-Fi networks as an economic stimulus package, if not an incumbent broadband build stimulation. Initial runs of WiMAX gear should be in circulation and help make broadband wireless connections more affordable, as well as "plug and play" rather than "moan and groan." I'd like to count mobile wireless into this surge, but the ITU doesn't. Too bad, since Verizon and Sprint will be fighting it out with their EVDO high-speed wireless offerings in 2006-2007.

Finally, broadband powerline technology (BPL) should be moving out of its dark horse status and into something more widespread. Last week, Google, Goldman Sachs, and the Hearst Corporation have invested $100 million in BPL manufacturer/service operator Current Communication. Venture capitalists left out of this deal are going to be scrambling around trying to find another BPL to put some cash down. Do a short timeline between cash invested, resources ramped, and results seen, and Current should be cooking along by the summer of 2007.

Ironically, by the time the effects of the "triad" of broadband consisting of cable/phone competition, broadband wireless, and BPL come to be measured by the ITU in 2007, the U.S. Congress should be coming to a conclusion on how to support the country's Universal Service Fund (USF). The fund was originally designed to support the building and deployment of phone services in underserved rural and urban areas, but proponents want to expand that mandate to encompass the delivery of broadband services. Representatives want to find a way to tax VoIP providers like Vonage to compensate for the decline in USF tax revenue as households abandon their copper phone lines and migrate onto lower-cost VoIP providers. µ


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