Lessons From Japan

Japan’s technological prowess is so noted as to be the subject of jokes. We probably prefer laughing to the crying that may be induced by the statistics in this article :

Accelerating broadband speed in [Japan] — as well as in South Korea and much of Europe — is pushing open doors to Internet innovation that are likely to remain closed for years to come in much of the United States. The speed advantage allows the Japanese to watch broadcast-quality, full-screen television over the Internet, an experience that mocks the grainy, wallet-size images Americans endure.

Japan enjoys what Gerschenkron called the “benefits of backwardness;” it had to rewire completely after WWII. But it also has a much wiser dirigiste approach to assuring fast and universal access:

In sharp contrast to the Bush administration over the same time period, regulators here compelled big phone companies to open up wires to upstart Internet providers. In short order, broadband exploded. . . . [T]he story of how Japan outclassed the United States in the provision of better, cheaper Internet service suggests that forceful government regulation can pay substantial dividends. (emphasis added)

In Japan, you’ll pay about $37 a month for 100 mbps. In the U.S., on average, you’d pay about $40 for 5 mbps (yes, 5, twenty times less).*

Why the policy divergence? Here’s one part of the story:

The Center for Public Integrity compiled a list of the top 100 money-givers to Congress between 1998 and 2005, and telcos dominate the list: Verizon Communications: $81,870,000, SBC Communications: $58,035,037, AT&T Corp.: $53,349,499, Sprint Corp.: $47,276,585, BellSouth Corp.: $33,732,827, Qwest Communications: $24,523,480

Very impressive lobbying numbers. . . . not so impressive download speeds.

PS: Here’s a little more from the article:

In the United States, a similar kind of competitive access to phone company lines was strongly endorsed by Congress in a 1996 telecommunications law. But the federal push fizzled in 2003 and 2004, when the Federal Communications Commission and a federal court ruled that major companies do not have to share phone or fiber lines with competitors. The Bush administration did not appeal the court ruling.

“The Bush administration largely turned its back on the Internet, so we have just drifted downwards,” said Thomas Bleha, a former U.S. diplomat who served in Japan and is writing a history of how that country trumped the United States in broadband.

Perhaps they were just worried about the First Amendment.

*PS: Those facts and figures are based on the figures in the Post, which focuses on the DC area. I don’t think figures in rural areas would make the US look much better.

You may also like...