Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What Does the American Experience with Roads Tell Us about Broadband?

Broadband infrastructure, sometimes called the “Internet highway,” has long been analogized to the nation’s highways. Yesterday, Art Brodsky said in the Public Knowledge Blog that not being “allowed to play favorites” has been part of transportation for 100 years. And in the Commission’s recent report on rural broadband, the National Highway System (“NHS”) was used as an example of America’s ability to overcome its infrastructure challenges. But favorites are played on the nation’s roadways, and the NHS includes only 4% of the nation’s roads.

So what does America’s experience with building the nation’s roads tell us about broadband, especially mobile broadband? (I note that Anna-Maria Kovacs at Regulatory Source Associates did a similar piece yesterday, but I explore different aspects of the analogy below.)

Guaranteed Speed. Like mobile wireless systems, the roadways are a shared infrastructure. Although a highway may be designed to handle traffic “up to” 55 mph, during rush hour traffic often slows considerably – and in many cities slows to a standstill. The available speed of travel on a typical highway changes throughout the day depending on the level of demand at any given point in time. It also changes throughout the week – holiday weekends are often busier than non-holiday weekends. This is the nature of inherently shared networks, which may explain why transportation engineers don’t provide “guaranteed” speeds.

Traffic Management. That doesn’t mean that transportation engineers stand idly by when traffic congestion threatens the usability of a particular road. Transportation engineers have devised numerous ways of dealing with traffic congestion.

A common method is to limit use of certain lanes or even the entire road at certain times to certain vehicles – i.e., “high occupancy vehicles” or “HOV”, which often includes motorcycles or vehicles using hybrid technology. Thus, a driver’s choice of vehicle may dictate whether, when, and how that driver may use certain roadways. In other words, a driver of a “gas hog” may be excluded from a particular roadway, even if that driver has excellent reasons for using that type of vehicle (e.g., an accessible van driven by a person with disabilities or a low-income driver that cannot afford a more modern alternative that would qualify for HOV privileges).

Traffic engineers are also increasingly using “congestion pricing” to reduce traffic congestion during peak demand. In some instances, a fee is charged for using HOV lanes, which are known as “high occupancy toll” or “HOT” lanes. Another form of congestion pricing is to reduce existing toll rates outside the hours of peak demand.

Some oppose government traffic management methodologies on the grounds of discrimination. The National Motorists Association (“NMA”) argues that drivers should have “[c]omplete access to all public streets, roads, and highways, free of arbitrary restrictions, exorbitant fees, or governmental attempts to dictate personal travel choices.” For example, according to the NMA, HOV rules that allow certain vehicle types inherently discriminate among drivers based on their choice of vehicle. But such opposition has not eliminated the use of HOV restrictions by government officials, who recognize the very real challenges of traffic management.

Financing Construction. Transportation engineers also use various methods to fund new construction. Although tax dollars are the most common method of funding roadway construction and maintenance, some roads (especially highways) are built and maintained using a form of metered pricing – i.e., tolls. Tolls may vary according to the distance traveled, the building and maintenance costs of the roadway, and the type of vehicle.

When building its roadway system, the United States also took into account differences between sparsely populated rural areas and more densely populated urban areas. The United States does not offer the same types of roads to both urban and rural areas. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, approximately 35 percent of the roads in the United States are still unpaved. When balancing the costs and benefits of building paved roads to every house in America, the United States has decided that the benefits of paved roads are outweighed by their cost in many rural areas.

Fees for Heavy Users. Due to the additional congestion and impact on road surfaces caused by the trucking industry, it is not surprising that the trucking industry pays additional taxes and tolls for use of the nation’s roadways. All federal trucking industry taxes are earmarked for the Federal Highway Trust Fund (“HTF”). The HTF was designed as a user-supported fund, and it is the primary source of revenue for the interstate highway system and various other federal-aid highway programs. Although all users pay into the fund through fuel taxes, diesel fuel used by the commercial trucking industry is taxed at a higher rate than gasoline (diesel is 24.4 cents per gallon compared to gasoline’s 18.4 cents per gallon). Commercial tires are similarly taxed at a higher rate than non-commercial tires. Perhaps most relevant to the broadband analogy is the Federal Heavy Vehicle Use Tax, which is imposed on all vehicles with a gross weight of more than 55,000 pounds, and federal excise taxes, which are imposed on all new tractor and trailer purchases. Thus, where our highways are concerned, the federal government has expressly embraced the idea that heavy users of a shared resource should pay more for that use.

Mobile Wireless. Mobile wireless network engineers face many of the same challenges that confront transportation officials. Like America’s roadways, mobile wireless networks are shared infrastructure subject to congestion that must be managed through various techniques, including through limitations on certain types of applications (wireless “HOV” restrictions) and congestion pricing. Also like roadways, broadband networks are costly to build, especially in rural areas. Just as rural America has been connected largely with unpaved roads, mobile wireless technologies are a more cost-effective solution for rural areas than fiber to the home. And, like the Federal government does with the commercial trucking industry, it makes sense to charge particularly heavy users of mobile networks more than typical users.

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