Third Broadband Pipe Pokes Hole in Baltimore. Finally.

When Sprint Nextel lit its new WiMax network in Baltimore, the long-promised third broadband pipe into the American home was realized. At least for Baltimore residents, a broadband provider choice now amounts to more than a Tweedledee or Tweedledum pick of DSL or cable.

It's about time.

More than six years ago, the Federal Communications Commission moved to deregulate the broadband delivery business by classifying broadband via cable modem as an information service and not subject to the same heavy regulatory burdens of the then Baby Bells, who were required to share their lines with competing ISPs (Internet service providers).

The majority of Republicans on the FCC soon followed with more decisions to also make DSL an information service, all but shutting the door on competitive broadband services. The market quickly dissolved into a duopoly choice of using a wireline or a cable service.

The Republicans hailed the decisions as a step forward for competition in the United States, contending excessive regulations were encumbering the market (where have we heard that argument before?). The concerns of consumer groups and Democrats on the FCC and in Congress where dismissed as being shortsighted.

On the day in March 2002 that the FCC deregulated cable modems, one of then Chairman Michael Powell's top aides told me, "It's not an implausible scenario that instead of having three or four choices of an ISP offered by the cable or telephone companies, consumers will have three or four choices for broadband, of which two would be telephone or cable."

He added, "Our critics seem to think telephone and cable are going to be the consumers' only two choices of broadband." Six years later, wireline telephone companies and cable operators control 98 percent of the broadband market.

When Powell left the FCC three years later, he crowed, "The seeds of our policies are taking firm root in the marketplace and are starting to blossom."

I don't know about you, but six years to get one wireless broadband pipe built in one city (and that only partially so) hardly represents a blossoming. It seems to be more like failed policy. But you can't really accuse the Republicans of a failed broadband policy when they never had one in the first place.