Railroading Broadband?

by on February 18, 2010 · 0 comments

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s comparison of broadband with electricity in a speech this week has generated mixed reviews in the blogosphere. Manny Ju says that this shows Genachowski “gets it” — that he understands the transformational power of broadband and how it will come to be regarded as a ubiquitous necessity in the years ahead. Scott Cleland is more alarmed: “The open question here is electricity transmission is regulated as a public utility. Is the FCC Chairman’s new metaphor intended to extend to how broadband should be regulated?”

It may surprise some technophiles, but this kind of discussion even predates electricity. The advent of the railroads in the 19th century brought similar arguments.  Railroads were usually a heck of a lot cheaper way of hauling goods and people across land than the next best alternative at the time: wagons. Railroads were “The Next Big Thing” that no town could do without — especially if the town lacked access to navigable waters. Lawmakers handed out subsidies (often in the form of land grants), then regulated railroads to control perceived abuses, such as discriminatory pricing for different kinds of traffic or traffic between different locations. Henry Carter Adams, the godfather of economic regulation in the U.S., said all shippers deserved “equality before the railroads.” Even today, commentators lament the rural towns that people abandoned because they lacked rail access. Deja vu all over again! 

As long as we’re deja-vuing, let’s remember a few little problems America encountered down the railroad regulatory track:

1. Subsidies created “excess capacity” — that is, more capacity than customers were willing to pay for. In some cases, subsidies attracted shady operators into the railroad business whose main goal was to get land grants or sell diluted stock offerings to the public, not build and operate railroads. 

2. Regulation ended up caretlizing railroads and propping up rail rates, which faced downward pressure because of the excess capacity.

3. When another low-cost, convenient alternative (trucking) came along in the 1930s, truckers got pulled into the cartel when they too were placed under Interstate Commerce Commission regulation to keep them from undercutting rail rates.

4. Despite cartelization, by the late 1970s, 21 percent of the nation’s railroad track was operated by bankrupt railroads, even though the railroads had shed unprofitable passenger service to Amtrak earlier in the decade. Part of the reason was excessive costs: Because access to freight rail service was still considered a right, regulation prevented railroads from abandoning money-losing lines. Part of the reason was restraints on competition: The regulatory passion for “fair” pricing kept railroads from competing aggressively with each other or with truckers. When the Southern Railway introduced its 100-ton “Big John” grain hopper cars in the 1960s, for example, it couldn’t offer shippers lower rates in exchange for high volume until it appealed an Interstate Commerce Commission all the way to the Supreme Court.

By the late 1970s, a Democratic president, a bipartisan majority in Congress, and economists across the political spectrum agreed that railroad regulation needed a radical overhaul. Regulatory reforms made it easier for railroads to abandon unprofitable service, in many cases turning track over to new, lower-cost short lines and regional railroads. Prices for more than 90 percent of rail traffic were effectively deregulated. At the same time, Congress deregulated rates and entry on interstate trucking routes. This encouraged rail-truck competition and also allowed each mode to specialize in serving those markets it could serve at lowest cost.

Rail rates fell, and railroads came out of bankruptcy. The current system is hardly perfect, but most economic research suggests that most consumers, shippers, and railroads are much better off now than they were under the old regulatory system.  (For reviews of scholarly research on this, check out Clifford Winston’s paper here  or my article here.)

Will we repeat the cycle with broadband? I don’t know, but to this railfan, the current broadband debate is looking soooo retro — as in 19th century!

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