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Want a faster Web connection?

Move to France

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I bet you think that Americans have the fastest Internet connections in the world, and at the best prices. I once thought that, too. It makes sense -- the Internet was largely developed by Americans, so why wouldn't we be the first to reap the benefits, right?

Sorry, but here's your wake-up call: as Business Week reported recently, French broadband connections are about three times faster than ours, and Japanese connections are 10 times faster. And they're both cheaper. In addition, French consumers have more choices when they pick an Internet provider, which means the French get more for their 30 euros (around $40) per month, including Internet voice "phone" calls, plenty of Internet TV and free WiFi.

The big news here is that the French get these faster Internet connections because of strict government regulation. In 2000, the country's national telecom regulator told France Telecom it had to open its national network to rival operators. This is known as "local loop unbundling." That decision created opportunities for other nations' carriers, and French telecom upstarts, to start offering competing Net services.

Now, as Business Week reports, "Paris and other cities are plastered with ads for state-of-the-art home Internet gateways ... with names like Livebox, Freebox, Neufbox, and Dartybox," all of which feature faster connections than are available in America.

This is just the latest in a series of events that have been bad for the "Freedom Fries" crowd of France haters. First, it turned out that former President Chirac (and the rest of the world) was right about the folly of the United States attacking Iraq. More recently, la douce France has shone in several high-profile studies. The World Health Organization, for instance, recently ranked France No. 1 in the world for healthcare. The United States? No. 37, right above Slovenia. France also has the lowest poverty rate of any industrialized nation, the lowest electricity bills and the smallest amount of carbon dumping -- and they're not dependent on Middle Eastern oil. Moreover, it turns out that despite those five weeks of vacation per year mandated by its evil socialistic government, France's productivity is among the world's highest.

The French phenomenon that garnered the most notice in the United States, however, was the recent presidential election in which 85 percent of eligible voters turned out, as opposed to the United States, where a 50 percent turnout is considered "huge."

Conservatives in the United States whooped and hollered for a couple of days after the media told them Nicolas Sarkozy, the new French president, is a "conservative." The gloating stopped abruptly, however, so maybe someone explained to them that if Sarkozy ran in the United States, he and his proposals would be ripped on Fox News for being "ultra-liberal." It makes you wonder how many of them realize that the hated, "anti-American" Chirac was also a French "conservative." Even their conservatives believe in a government that works for everyone, and not just for high-rollers, a la Bush & Co.

The bottom line for consumers in all this is that the United States is now behind France (as well as some other countries) in new Internet applications that require high speed. Consequently, as Paul Krugman reported last week in The New York Times, "France leads the world in the number of subscribers to Internet TV; the United States isn't even in the top 10."

"Wait a minute," knee-jerk U.S. nationalists will say, "America uses local loop unbundling, too, so the French government must be slipping money to that country's Internet providers in order for them to beat out our all-American 'free market' companies." But that's not true.

It's indeed a fact that the United States applied local loop unbundling. The Clinton administration made sure of it, by forcing local phone companies to allow competing service providers to use their lines, which led to the tremendous growth of the U.S. Internet in the dial-up days.

The critical difference between Internet development in France and the United States, however, is that powerful American telecom companies, which at first stalled implementation of the unbundling, finally found a way to sabotage Clinton's efforts. How? They paid, er, persuaded telecom regulators at the state levels to set such high rates for smaller companies to use the unbundled lines, most of the big boys' competitors were driven out of business. The result for American consumers is that, unlike the French and others, we're generally left with just two Internet providers to choose from: the cable company or the phone company. Whoopee.

There's a delicious irony at work here. The French government, by ordering their national telecom company to share its network with rivals, in effect helped launch the kind of competition among Net service providers that we wish our own, supposedly more competitive, system would allow. When big corporations can rig the process, such as what happened in this instance in the United States, that's not a "free market" -- it's a crooked game of Monopoly, which always works against the benefit of ordinary Americans.

The lesson here is that government regulation can sometimes instigate more competition and give consumers more, and better, choices. Now, if American free-market disciples can take off their ideological blinders long enough to see the light, maybe one day we'll be able to catch up to the dreaded snail-eaters.

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