Google Gets in Bed with Verizon

Tuesday's Wall Street Journal features an Op-ed by the CEO of Google, Eric
Schmidt, and the CEO of Verizon, Ivan Seidenberg, about the importance
of high-speed Internet access.

It is mostly boring; until it gets to the punchline and tells us that
government should have as little role as possible in delivering
broadband to America. Just like government should stay out of banking
regulation, I take it?

The piece starts well, talking about how broadband is good for America.
It is nice to see prominent business leaders elevating that message in
the Journal. The second point is dumb and disingenuous for a number of
reasons, some of which illuminate the Orwellian position of big
corporations in Washington.

Pretty much everyone agrees with these two guys that broadband Internet
access is an important driver for economic growth and social
opportunity. And we all see that digital divides are still a problem in
America: rural and urban, rich and poor. We are falling behind the
industrialized world in broadband infrastructure, as they build
super-fast, nationwide networks, and we struggle to deliver the same
quality even to our biggest cities. And when we do have good
super-fast broadband, it is super-expensive -- 2 to 10 times more costly than overseas.

That's why Congress ordered the Federal Communications Commission to
produce a National
Broadband Plan
(just published this month) to chart a course towards
world-class, affordable internet for all Americans: team Obama's plan
to catch up with the globe's leading broadband nations, and kickstart
our economic engines into overdrive. The CEO Op-ed applauds the FCC's
Plan. They agree with the FCC that broadband should be everywhere and
enhancing all aspects of our lives. And, they say it should be built to
the world leading standards that (not incidentally) both of these
companies have built into their business plans.

For the first 80%, this is the vanilla ice cream of broadband Op-eds.
Then come these two punchline paragraphs:

"The Internet has thrived in an environment of minimal
regulation. While our two companies don't agree on every issue, we do
agree generally as a matter of policy that the framework of minimal
government involvement should continue.

The FCC underscores the importance of creating the right climate for
private investment and market-driven innovation to advance broadband.
That's the right approach and why we are encouraged to see the FCC's

Let me translate their rhetoric: The FCC's plan is great -- as long
as they don't try to implement it. Or rather, as long as they don't do
anything that doesn't fit within Verizon and Google's idea of "minimal
government involvement." It's no accident that the CEOs don't try to
explain what they mean. If they did, they would step directly into a
big, steaming pile of hypocrisy.

Most agree that the market is the preferred mechanism for achieving
the goals of the nation in digital technology and infrastructure. If
the market is working, government plays cheerleader.

But, hello, the whole reason the Congress mandated a National
Broadband Plan from the FCC is because the market isn't working; we're
slipping perilously behind the rest of the world.

The objectives set out in the plan, all of which are applauded by
these companies -- world-class fiber networks, the expansion of
broadband for universal availability and adoption, and the extension of
broadband into every aspect of our lives -- aren't being delivered
without government action.

So to recap the CEOs' position: We need a Plan and government
action, so long as it doesn't constitute government involvement in their

Let's unpack this a bit more. Both CEOs love the idea of getting
world-class, super-fast fiber-optic broadband networks to Americans.
They mention that Google has only a pilot project to do this. Verizon
is top of the heap in the telecom world -- deploying fiber to metro
areas in the Northeast. But meanwhile, Verizon has wound down investment in fiber after pushing it
out in the most lucrative neighborhoods.

Verizon inconveniently skipped over low-income Baltimore altogether.
A couple of years ago, they decided all of Vermont, New Hampshire, and
Maine were not favorable markets for them. They sold their less profitable networks in these
states to FairPoint -- a company now in bankruptcy delivering 3rd world quality
broadband. Right now, Verizon is looking to dump its networks in 14 other states. So, what
about those 17 states? What about everyone else in the country who
doesn't live between (suburban) Boston and Washington D.C.? Do they not
deserve to have a world-class infrastructure? How will we close that
digital divide? Well, the market isn't doing it, and everywhere else in
the world they have done it, it has taken proactive government involvement.

"Minimal Government Regulation" makes for a good CEO bumper sticker. But
it is a complete disconnect as they praise heaped on the National
Broadband Plan, with its hundreds of recommendations for productive
intervention in various sectors of the broadband market.
Government is bad, except when it's helping me

Like most big companies, Google and Verizon hate regulation and
government involvement in business when it limits bad behavior and
anti-competitive activity. But they absolutely love it when it helps
them. In fact, both of these companies maintain small armies of
lobbyists to ply the government for all the regulations that they want,
even as they fight off all the regulations they don't want.

Classic corporate hypocrisy: hate government except when you love it.
Anyone paying attention has seen these erstwhile government
teetotalers swigging from the flask all the time. Also, let's remember
that these companies are in aggressive opposition to one another on some
big policy issues that matter enormously to American consumers.

Here's a short list of stuff Google wants from their "minimal
government involvement."

  • Google would like government to mandate the installation of broadband conduit in
    every public construction project.
  • Google would like stronger regulations in the market for commercial
    broadband services sold to big companies and cell phone towers
    guessed it...Verizon.
  • Google would like government to authorize and offer municipal broadband networks.
  • Google strongly supports Network Neutrality rules.
  • Google argued for open market conditions on spectrum
    licenses and got in a bidding war with Verizon to get them.
  • Google has also argued for rules that set aside spectrum for open
    use by innovators.
  • Google wants new rules for cable set-top boxes.
  • Google supports and opposes different aspects of
    copyright and patent law to support and protect their business.
  • Google, like most technology companies, argues for
    the expansion
    of a visa program for tech-savvy internationals. And
    the list goes on.

And Verizon's wish list for "minimal government involvement" is just
as long.

Let me be clear: many of the things these companies argue for are good
ideas (some of them are really bad ideas). And they are certainly not
in kumbaya agreement. The point is that government is inherently and
deeply involved in these markets in all kinds of ways; many of them
actively desired by the very same companies that demonize government
involvement. It's silly, and we ought to end the charade.

And finally, many in Washington may read this as a secret coded message
that Google is abandoning its commitment to Network Neutrality and
joining Verizon in opposition to rules guaranteeing an open Internet. I
don't believe that is true -- and I hope never to see such rank

But in the meantime, we should be glad Messers Schmidt and Seidenberg
like broadband. And we should be honest that they actually like
government too. Without government involvement, the goals they laud
will not be reached, and more Americans will be left on the wrong side
of the digital divide. And as much as they might like to deny it, both
of these companies want and need government to help them succeed.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.