A story about a South African IT company highlighting its atrociously slow broadband speed by using a carrier pigeon to transfer data has been making the rounds today. While the story is a great example of a creative way to protest your ISP’s poor service, it also highlights an important point made last week at one of the FCC National Broadband Plan workshops.
As we discussed earlier, at the workshop on developing benchmarks Professor Catherine Sandoval of the Santa Clara University School of Law insisted that speed alone could not be used to compare different broadband services, or to measure the effectiveness of the National Broadband Plan. In fact, in her opinion, using any one metric (be it speed, availability, performance, or price) would be short sighted.
Instead, Prof. Sandoval suggested that the real way to compare different broadband services was to look to see if they were substitutable. Her example was to compare wireless and wired broadband. She pointed out that wired and wireless internet services of comparable speeds would not be substitutable because of the restrictions placed on use of wireless internet by providers.
The pigeon is another example. Taken on speed alone, the pigeon is clearly the superior service – in just over two hours, the pigeon transferred 4GB between the company’s two offices. In the same amount of time, the company was only able to transfer 4% of the data by way of its local ISP.
However, it is unlikely that companies are lining up to switch to pigeon based communications protocols. That is because the restrictions related to pigeon data transfer undermine any speed advantages it may have. In addition to the ever-present threat of hawk or rain related packet loss, pigeon latency makes it ineffective for rapid two way communication. There is also the problem that homing pigeons only go to one place, so if you have information you want to send to someone that you just met, you are probably out of luck.
Obviously, these are not the types of shortcomings that plague more traditional internet services. That being said, they are similar. My ultrafast wireless internet is useless for transferring large files if I have a data cap to worry about. And all sorts of applications that cannot run on a phone are blocked because of tethering restrictions.
Measuring the effectiveness of a National Broadband Plan will be hard, but substitutability analysis will be an important tool in checking its progress. It has been used for decades in antitrust law, and while it is not perfect, it can at least help us distinguish between internet service and a pigeon.