Innovation in International Broadband Comparisons: The Phoenix Center’s “Broadband Adoption Index”

July 19, 2009

Big kudos to George Ford and Larry Spiwak of the Phoenix Center for their innovative breakthrough in devising a rigorous “Broadband Adoption Index” to replace current highly-deficient international broadband comparison methods.

  • Last Wednesday, I attended the presentation of their paper before a largely government audience in Washington and came away very impressed with their clarity of thought and the vastly greater utility of their approach over existing comparative mechanisms.

First, George Ford drove home the point that the much-touted OECD broadband penetration ranking was fatally flawed, in that even if the U.S. reached perfect 100% penetration the U.S. could remain in about 15th place.

  • In other words, nothing the U.S. could do could change its ranking appreciably.
  • He explained why — the fact that per capita measures have an inherent bias in favor of countries with small households over countries like the U.S. with larger average households.
  • This common sense debunking of this widely-cited statistic is a helpful addition to the debate about where the U.S. really ranks in the world on broadband.
  • The big takeaway for the Government folks was that use of that statistic almost guaranteed that the U.S. would not improve in its international ranking no matter what the Government did with the broadband stimulus or the FCC’s National Broadband Plan.
    • To the extent that the Government desires to get appropriate and accurate credit for its broadband efforts going forward, it would be wise to phase out emphasis of the OECD ranking.

Second, Ford pointed out that not having a broadband measure include wireless broadband, like the OECD measure does, makes no sense.

  • If a measure like the OECD’s only values wireline broadband and totally ignores the existence and utility of wireless broadband, it will skew countries to make more expensive and less efficient wireline investments rather than making wireless broadband investments that could help many more people much faster.

Third, Ford drove home the common sense notion that a useful broadband index should care about, and focus on, what the target/goal is of the metric.

  • He explained that a one-size-all metric where everyone had one target of penetration lost sight of the reality that different countries start from very different places and thus have very different goals and have very different potentials for progress.
  • In essence he showed how the OECD ranking basically says that all countries should be like the Netherlands or Sweden regardless of what they want or need for their country.

Fourth, Ford explained the best way to normalize a broadband index is to focus on value.

  • This approach allows for wireline and wireless broadband to be compared fairly and accurately.
  • This also allows for nations to set country-appropriate targets/goals.

In closing, it will be interesting to see what the Berkman Center at Harvard, the FCC’s designated outsourced entity to review the literature on international broadband comparisions for the FCC’s National Broadband Plan, thinks of the Phoenix Center’s work here.

  • If they are fair and objective, they will recognize this innovative “Broadband Adoption Index” work as among the most intellectually rigorous and policy useful research available to the FCC and Congress.
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