It’s about time: U.S. almost gets serious about broadband buildout

After writing about broadband for nearly a decade-and-a-half, it is finally good to see our politicians actually thinking about broadband and connectedness in a thoughtful manner. Almost!

First, the news:

On Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama will sign an order to make the approval process for broadband network buildout on roads and federal property smoother, easier and simpler.

“Building a nationwide broadband network will strengthen our economy and put more Americans back to work,” said President Obama. “By connecting every corner of our country to the digital age, we can help our businesses become more competitive, our students become more informed and our citizens become more engaged.”

Tom Kalil, Deputy Director for Policy, for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Farnam Jahanian, Assistant Director, of National Science Foundation shared these details in a conference call today.
The new order solves the following problems:

  • In order to approve broadband construction, different federal agencies have different processes.
  • The Federal Government owns about 30 percent of the US land, roads and over 10,000 buildings.

The new order will make things simpler by:

  • Ensuring that Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Interior, Transportation and Veteran Affairs & the US Postal Service develop a single process to approve the Internet construction process.
  • The Department of Transportation will make sure that a dig-once policy is in place. So when new roads are being built, the construction teams should included the empty pipes that can house fiber cables instead of having constantly to dig this up. US Representatives Anna Eshoo (Democrat, California) and Henry Waxman (Democrat, California) have been big proponents of the “dig once” policy.

Dig this

The dig-once policy is a smart way to ensure that we can see fiber is deployed quickly across the U.S. It should help spread the fiber to far-flung and greenfield locations.
When I was writing Broadbandits, I would often hear stories that would reinforce the point that the process of building our connected future was decidedly ancient. The buildout of broadband networks was slowed down because of local bureaucracy.
I would also hear tales of towns being angry because network operators would rip the roads too often in order to lay the cable. Things have changed since, but not very much.

Ignite the broadband

In addition, the White House launched a new non-profit effort called U.S. Ignite, that will help push new apps for these next-generation broadband networks. The Ignite effort is in partnership with the Mozilla Foundation.
In the press release, White House notes:

 The White House is also announcing that nearly 100 partners—including more than 25 cities as well as corporate and non-profit entities—will join with more than 60 national research universities to form a new public-private partnership called “US Ignite.”

The National Science Foundation notes:

U.S. Ignite will expand on investments in the NSF-funded Global Environment for Networking Innovation (GENI) project which lays the technical groundwork for this initiative. Using GENI as the thread, U.S. Ignite will stitch together high-speed broadband resources to create a testbed across universities and cities throughout the United States at a national scale. GENI is a fast, programmable “virtual laboratory” that enables university researchers to experiment on so-called future internets.

Good news, bad news

I am a little blasé about the Ignite part of the news. Let me explain, why I feel that way, but before I do that – let me give how context on how I think about broadband. Broadband is of crucial importance to our global economy. Just as railroads and roads were crucial to the Industrial Revolution, broadband connectedness is important for not only the U.S., but for the global economy. And just like critical transport infrastructure of the past, when we think of broadband, we need to look at it from three angles.

  1. Policy
  2. Competition
  3. Usage & applications.

Just as with the road infrastructure, the federal government helped with the economic shifts that shaped modern America, smart policies should be put in place to help encourage the proliferation of broadband and connectivity. When it comes to policy, decisions such as dig-once to make it easy to lay fiber are precisely what the government should be involved in.
However, when it comes to competition, the current and previous governments’ track record is deplorable. The situation today is that we live in a  bipolar world of cable and phone companies. Both parties have a vested interest in letting each other thrive and dip deeper and deeper into consumer pockets.
The proposed joint marketing arrangement between Comcast (s cmcsa) and Verizon (s vz) takes away any vestige of competition. If the current government wants to make a meaningful impact on the broadband growth, it should start looking at ways to build competition in the marketplace. That said, I am not holding my breath.

Can Ignite really ignite innovation?

If you look at all the press releases, you don’t see much in the way of specifics of what type of applications that the Ignite effort will help launch. There are academic projects that the NSF is going fund, and while they are intellectually intriguing, I feel that the mass use case for ultrafast broadband is going to come from folks like you and me.
A designer’s desire to see his cat’s video resulted in YouTube. A pimply kid’s desire to build a way to rate fellow Harvard attendees turned into world’s biggest photo-album. (Facebook, in case you, didn’t guess that.) A bike messenger’s desire to build a better messaging tool is now the news channel — aka , Twitter.
The point I am making is that these apps originated from minds of people who are people, and now a public-private partnership. They had a problem, they solved it and Internet helped them distribute their solution to others. Others loved their products and they used them, and in the process created demand for more and more bandwidth.
This is no different than the road infrastructure buildout. The road infrastructure resulted in many different applications — gas stations, motels, McDonalds, for example. Later, those apps morphed into convenience stores, shopping malls and WalMart. None of those “apps” required government intervention. It was a special public-private partnership between the public (who needed the services) and the service providers who wanted to sell those services.
Ignite – I don’t need. What I want is more intelligent policy to help build more fiber, easier Wi-Fi deployments and most importantly – competition – a lot of competition.
Photo Graphic Credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation