The National Broadband Plan: Some Assembly Still Required

A few months ago I challenged the broadband speed goals in the National Broadband Plan. Besides my central thesis that speed had become the tail wagging the dog when it comes to national policy, I also responded to plan architect Blair Levin’s offer to debate the adequacy of 4 Mbps as a sufficient 10-year goal for rural America. From the column:

Blair Levin, chief architect of the national broadband plan and advocate for the 4 Mbps goal, stated in a recent interview, “I’ll be happy to debate this with anybody anytime anywhere if they answer three questions: What should the speed be? What will it cost? And how will we pay for it?”

The first is a trick question. The goal isn’t about speed, it’s about getting to the moon and back at whatever speed it takes to get the job done. With broadband technology, this benchmark is fluid among communities and constituent groups and their respective needs. The answer to the second question is: one hellava a lot, especially if you want to do the job right. The answer to the third question is, we can pay for more of these networks if fewer people had a backward worldview on this issue. Chattanooga, Tenn., Santa Monica, Calif., and Wilson, N.C. are three communities that have already found ways — without broadband stimulus dollars — to build gigabit networks.

I want to take this debate a little further. Being the person who literally wrote the book on community broadband – two books actually – I’ve talked to hundreds of people who represent communities in need of broadband. There are several additional points where I differ with Mr. Levin based on what I’ve heard from the trenches.

Since my last column, Mr. Levin has done several interviews in which some of his comments are now closer to my argument. In a CNET interview he states, “The one [metric] that’s most wrong is speed. We should be thinking about how we use it because the real upside is not in increasing speed, it’s in increasing the applications.” I agree 100 percent. By default this comment says that, if the apps individuals, local businesses and organizations need over the next couple of years demand much greater speeds than 4Mbps, sticking by this goal would condemn rural America to the ghetto of broadband inadequacy.

Mr. Levin makes several additional assertions, though, I find problematic. I feel these views will have a negative impact if adopted as policy.

“Speed is incredibly important, but what we found was for most of the country speeds are actually pretty good. I would say that 4G is going to end up being more important to more people over the next couple of years than increases in wireline speed.” (from PC World)

I’m not sure how much of Levin’s research was hands-on in small towns, the ‘hood, rural counties and barrios, but for a great many places, broadband speeds are not pretty good. In fact, feedback I get straight from some of these communities is that based on what they need and what they will need in the next couple of years, speeds outright suck, availability is spotty-to-nonexistent and quality of services is abysmal. If broadband policy reflects the incumbent propaganda that sugarcoats reality, outcomes from that policy will be flawed.

Furthermore, students of physics will tell you that wireless has speed limits that fall short of individuals’ and organizations’ future broadband needs. And students of history will tell you that, based on tech industry trends related to speed and capacity, that future is much sooner than 10 years. 4G is more a marketing-hyped interim fix than a long-term solution for communities’ broadband needs.

“Having a massive regulatory regime based on the theory that someone may become a monopolist in the future may become very problematic because it may turn out that’s not true at all, and that affects investment decisions.” (from PC World)

Theory? Please. Our history is littered with stories of businesses that, when left to grow un-checked (i.e. unregulated), became predatory, rival-eating, innovation-squashing, customer-screwing, self-preservation-at-all-costs snakes. Consumer protection agencies and truckloads of case law came into being directly because of this corporate predilection for monopolistic behavior. Any broadband policy claiming to benefit the general public, businesses and institutions must include protections of these constituents from that behavior. To believe otherwise is to live in a fantasy world.

“If we don’t get 1 Gbps to every community and if we don’t get a nationwide interoperable public safety network, then we should re-think what we were trying to do.” (from PC World)

Here again, I agree with Mr. Levin 101 percent. But I wonder. Given this statement, does that mean the people promoting the National Broadband Plan are going to stop talking about 4 Mbps as a 10-year goal? Because you clearly can’t get there (broadband with serious cajones) from here (really wimpy broadband goals).

“Mobile broadband is a horizontal industry. This means it is the industry to which every other industry will find new tools for innovation and growth.” (from PC World)

Policymakers need a clear lesson on how to differentiate hype from reality. Hype: mobile broadband (a.k.a. LTE) will carry us to the broadband promisedland. Reality: There are wireless data communication technologies that take us closer to the promised land today, and they aren’t LTE (which, by the way, is a mere imitation of what 4G is truly supposed to be).

Vince Jordan, President and CEO of network management firm RidgeviewTel, explains, “There are wireless point-to-point and point-to-multipoint technologies that serve people who are looking for a seamless experience in which they can’t tell where the platform and application end, and broadband connectivity begins. 4G/LTE will not get us there, whereas these other heavy-duty wireless options do it today, and will continue to do so in the future in conjunction with fiber technology.” Our broadband plan needs to rely more on hefty wireless options currently in play that get us 20 Mbps to 300 Mbps rather than this pseudo 4G that offers 5 Mbps to 12 Mbps.

“Competition is great, but we can’t afford everything. So we have to shift funds to ensure we accomplish our main goal, which is getting service everywhere. That is a  hard choice. And I think the FCC needs to be clear about those types of choices.” (from CNet)

This is, by far and away, where consumers and businesses Internet users got reamed by the National Broadband Plan. It fails to address the lack of competition that is the crux of many of America’s problems in broadband: crappy speeds, high prices, the lack of services that businesses need, poor service quality in small towns and rural areas.

I recently completed a needs assessment for a California town within the shadow of a major metropolis that technically has 11 providers offering services in my client’s area. Yet over one third of the tenants in the town’s industrial park aren’t getting adequate speeds to run several major types of business computing applications. It costs nearly $1,000/month to get less than 10 Mbps of access while businesses in some cities that own their own network pay $350/month for a gigabit. One national incumbent won’t even bring service to the business park at all.

Yes, businesses have “available” options that lobbyists like CTIA thump their chests about, but there are (to date) no providers competing to offer broadband services that businesses need in that park. This situation exists across America, as shown in a recent report from the FCC that says 2/3 of Americans do not have providers that offer the minimal speeds (4 Mbps down, 1 Mbps up) the agency established. And in places that have three or more wired and wireless competitors, that “competition” erodes entirely when you look for true broadband speed. “In those conditions, 97 percent of users had only one or two carriers at most to choose from.”

What’s one main reason we don’t have competition where it counts – offering services that businesses require if they’re going to drive economic development? Too many policymakers and lawmakers from DC to the statehouses lack the guts to take on the incumbents who obstruct both meaningful policy and legislation that would give us the competition we need. And those who do make a stand continually get beat down.

While there are many good things to say about the National Broadband Plan and the great work people did to create it, there’s still some assembly, and disassembly, required.

Craig Settles is an industry analyst, co-founder of Communities United for Broadband and broadband business strategist who delivers on-site training to private and public sector organizations. Follow him on Twitter (@cjsettles) and his blog, “Fighting the Next Good Fight.”

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