Monday, September 28, 2009

FTTH in the U.S. vs. small countries--Part 2

Recently I wrote that it's nonsense to compare small country FTTH data to U.S. FTTH data, especially if the purpose is to suggest that somehow the U.S. is falling behind in FTTH adoption. I received some good feedback that adds to that argument, and even argues that the U.S. is one of the leaders in last-mile telecom infrastructure.

My point in the earlier post was basically that small populations will fill out a wider distribution than the larger groups of which they are members. Small populations will fill the wings of the distribution, as well as the center. So, don't compare Andorra or Iceland FTTH data to that of the U.S. Compare the data to Palo Alto. Or rural Alaska. But not to the U.S.

Moreover, many countries have more centralized telecom policies than in the U.S., where policymaking is fragmented among states, municipalities, and multiple branches of the federal government. There are lots of rural coops in the U.S. with advanced telecom infrastructures that rival Andorra. And many that are way behind. But you don't know that from aggregated data.

Former colleague and optical fiber analyst extraordinaire Richard Mack noted a couple things that suggest that the U.S. is not behind, but arguably among the leaders in broadband infrastructure.

First, he says, figures of merit that look at broadband lines per population don't consider that a lot of broadband comes through the workplace in shared links other than FTTH or DSL. When a recent report redefined the figure of merit to include all types of use and other factors, the U.S. actually comes out on top.

The figures of merit also don't consider what is being done with the broadband. The U.S. is arguably the leader in innovation in applications like YouTube and Facebook, not to mention more substantive computing applications. This has to count for something. Such innovations aren't coming out of Andorra or Iceland (although tiny Estonia is home to the headquarters of Skype, thanks to the flattening effect of telecom).

I contributed to a Congressional study many years ago that pointed out that investment in telecom infrastructure has been shown to correlate strongly to economic development in poor areas. At some point, however, there are diminishing returns. So, contrary to cheerleading that "the global race for FTTH is on," economies should invest in the broadband (and not necessarily always FTTH) that it needs at that time. Too much investment and you have a bubble. Too little and you miss opportunities.

The point is this: when you see someone spinning FTTH or broadband data, ask hard questions about what it really says.

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