Push Paperwork, Not Pipes, for Universal Broadband

As President-elect Barack Obama contemplates plans that would provide universal broadband access, lobbyists and technologists are lining up to get their voices heard. When it comes to broadband, I’m strongly in favor of some type of government intervention, but rather than pay to lay fiber, a national plan should address some of the sticking points of our current infrastructure — namely a lack of competition and a need to unify rules and regulations for telecommunications providers.

I’ve glossed over the role of local and state governments and other parties that share telecommunications infrastructure — in a sense, the costs of the analog network — but it’s important. While the digital costs of broadband networks — the cost of moving bits of data around — is decreasing, the analog equivalent of that broadband equation is a bit harder to measure. This was brought home by a report this week in MultiChannel News looking at the costs of stringing cable via utility poles.  The article suggests that lowering the cost of attaching equipment and stringing cables from utility poles — as well as making those prices uniform for all users of the pole — would increase broadband deployments.

The most obvious costs of the analog portion of a broadband deployment are the workers who dig the trenches, install equipment at houses, etc., but getting municipalities and public utility commissions to approve or expedite your efforts costs money, too. As does getting access to utility poles, working to codes that may or may not apply to your deployment, and deals that have to be worked out with municipalities to get your infrastructure accepted.

Figuring out these issues, from how to define a telecommunications provider, to which government entity should decide how cable franchises are awarded, are key to broadband deployment. So when we’re talking about our plans to build 100 Mbps pipes to every home, we need to think not just about technology, but about the rules and regulations that will stand in the way. We also need to think about how to encourage competition, and get real information on deployments from the current providers. This isn’t as easy as telling folks to lay fiber, but setting rules and regulations is what the government is designed to do.