At the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday, I had the opportunity to meet Steve Davis, Qwest’s senior vice president of public policy. I asked Steve about the company’s policy with respect to the management of Internet traffic.
The issue has been in the news recently as Comcast, the nation’s largest cable operator, has come under fire from the Federal Communications Commission for secretly blocking the peer-to-peer file trading service BitTorrent.
“We are for everything that prohibits blocking of Internet traffic,” said Davis. “But we don’t support regulation of transport.”
I asked Davis if Qwest blocks or constricts any Internet applications as Comcast has done in the past. His response: “We don’t engage in the type of constriction that Comcast does.” (Since Comcast announced on Thursday that it will impose a monthly cap of 250 gigabytes on their customers, I didn’t have a chance to ask Davis about this new policy.)
Rather than blocking or constricting Web traffic, Davis said Qwest’s approach is to offer consumers several different flavors of bandwidth. Qwest, which serves about 13 million customers in 14 Western states, offers four different speeds at the moment, said Davis, including options for 1.5 megabytes (Qwest Connect Silver)), 7MB (Qwest Connect Platinum) , 12MB (Qwest Connect Titanium) and 20MB (Qwest Connect Quantum). Prices start at $46.99 per month.
The Denver-based phone company is able to offer beefier bandwidth because it recently began rolling out fiber optic cables in certain parts of its territory. Qwest is pursuing a strategy called “fiber-to-the-node,” which means it is laying cable from its central offices to nodes in various neighborhoods. That contrasts with Verizon’s more aggressive and expensive strategy of installing fiber optic cables directly into people’s homes.
Even so, Davis noted that offering consumers pay-what-you-drink options “doesn’t necessarily solve all problems” when it comes to U.S. broadband policy. “You could have back-haul problems too,” said Davis.
And it won’t help Americans living in rural areas who have no access to the Internet. To help solve that problem, Davis said Qwest is in favor of providing government subsidies for areas with no service to one low-cost provider that could wire the locale. “You wouldn’t subsidize competition,” said Davis.
My own take: Generally speaking, it’s better to have a solution come from the marketplace rather than government regulators. And while Om Malik and others have criticized the idea of tiered broadband, I believe some version of tiered pricing is the best solution to the bandwidth shortage.
Om makes a good point when he notes that cheap broadband has been a key factor in fueling the growth of the Internet. The broadband revolution has helped give birth to YouTube, MySpace and a host of other innovations that have energized the Web, creating new demand for Internet services.
And since Internet service has become a critical utility of our age, I agree that Internet providers should offer basic level service for a reasonable price. But let’s face it: Some people use more broadband than others and they should probably pay for it. I think it’s a very American idea: pay for what you use. And it’s economic 101.
That’s why competition should be a hallmark of our broadband policy–not government regulation of pricing. Competition will spur communications providers to offer higher and higher speeds at lower and lower prices. The battle between cable companies and phone companies has helped lower Internet service prices and raise entry-level speeds. But we need to find more ways to promote competition in future mediums, such as wireless broadband–especially since our appetite for bandwidth continues to grow with the rise of high definition video content.
What do you think?