Nativists in America reveled in the use of the term Freedom Fries to replace French Fries. But the French were right about the Iraq war and one doesn’t hear Freedom Fries used much anymore. The world of the internet has also seen France vindicated: In 2001, France had less than a quarter of the broadband internet penetration of the U.S., but today it exceeds ours and is three times faster to boot. Not only that, access is cheaper in France and it leads the world in the number of subscribers to Internet TV; the United States isn’t even in the top 10.
My eyes were opened to this French internet resurgence, and also that in a number of other countries, when I read Paul Krugman’s article today, The French Connections, in Times Select ($), and then found further information in the Business Week article, Vive la High-Speed Internet!.
So why has America fallen behind? This is the way Paul Krugman phrased it:
Bad policy. Specifically, the United States made the same mistake in Internet policy that California made in energy policy: it forgot — or was persuaded by special interests to ignore — the reality that sometimes you can’t have effective market competition without effective regulation.
The Business Week article describes how France outstrips the U.S. in infrastructure and turned into such a hotbed of broadband competition. To quote from the article: “The surge [not the Bush Iraq variety!] can be traced [to] government actions at the start of the decade that have proved far more effective at stimulating broadband competition than the policies of the FCC.” Further, from the Business Week article,
By comparison, “the U.S. is living on borrowed time,” says Peter Cowhey, a former official with the U.S. Federal Communication Commission and now professor of telecom policy at the University of California, San Diego. The next generation of information services will require very fast and cheap connections, he says, and while the U.S. is still ahead in software and Web innovation, it is falling behind in network infrastructure. That gives a potential leg up to the European and Asian countries that have rolled out better broadband services.
So what can we do? One thing would be to rehire Reed Hundt as chair of the FCC; he was chair during the Clinton administration. But that will have to wait until Bush leaves office of course.