To meet the FCC’s Gigabit Challenge, cities will have to get political

A few weeks ago, a tremor was felt in the Force as FCC Chairman Genachowski announced his Gigabit City Challenge – an initiative to get at least one citywide gigabit network per state by 2015. The range of responses went from cautious optimism to “is this the best we can do? and a range ”

Meanwhile, as we were getting our heads round the Challenge, the Empire, um, incumbent telcos struck back last week in Georgia with a an anti muni network bill that appears reasonable, but would kill hopes for a gig city in the Peach State. Windstream, AT&T and Georgia’s other incumbents are incapable of delivering gigabit services, so they have taken the easy way out and lobbied the legislature to kill cities’ ability to do so. Meanwhile, most of the gigabit networks elsewhere are run or being built by muni governments and public utilities, with just a few private companies leading gig projects.

Even the most ardent community broadband supporters, while happy the FCC’s gigabit challenge, believe the devil is in the details. Sure, quite a few fiber networks have moved past the planning stage. But it’s going to take hard work to meet the FCC challenge. Some of the hurdles are money-related. Others come from broadband policies and legislation that need to be approved, or improved, or as is the case in Georgia, flat out rejected.

The road to gigabit cities

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

The FCC news release on the Gigabit City Challenge offers few specific details for moving forward other than creating a clearinghouse for ideas and best practices. A panel of community broadband experts and advocates convened on my Gigabit Nation radio talk show to put a few brush strokes on this canvas so listeners could at least get an initial picture of what lies ahead.

The panel consensus was that more effort must be made by the FCC and other policymakers to remove ALEC-type barriers to community networks (American Legislative Exchange Council). The FCC’s National Broadband Plan specifically advocates preventing states from restricting local broadband solutions, and just Friday FCC Chairman Genachowski formally voiced his opposition to this type of legislation. Communities are displaying a range of creative solutions to bringing broadband where it needs to be, and this must be encouraged, not hijacked by telcos that refuse to service areas most in need.

The panel went on to describe a need for the FCC, broadband advocates and others to understand that a lot more education needs to happen.

“We have to make sure the audience we’re trying to reach is ready for the message we’re trying to send,” states Arkansas State Senator Linda Chesterfield, a legislative champion for greater broadband deployments. “We have a youthful population here who sees the necessity of a gigabit network. Then you have the people with BlackBerries (S RIM) who think these are good enough to get online. Until you have an audience that is ready to accept the services you’re trying to render, efforts to convince them to support this initiative will do no good.”

Everybody partner up

Putting aside the discussion of large incumbents stifling communities’ efforts, many private sector companies collectively are also a necessary component of any drive for more gigabit cities. Yet they face barriers too. From panelist and Broadband Communities Magazine Editor Masha Zager’s perspective, “The Chairman’s goal is achievable in that there are providers who could bring this capacity to communities, but aren’t doing so today. However there is the question of whether they can do so and meet their ROI needs.”

Google Fiber brickJim Baller, president of Baller-Herbst Law Group,notes that there are many legal issues that hold potential providers from developing gigabit networks. These include IRS’s ‘private use’ rules that discourage public-private partnerships, FCC limitations on access to universal service subsidies such as the preference for price cap carriers and FCC rules that adversely affect small providers.

Given the challenges facing both communities and private sector companies, one logical course of action is a greater pursuit of public private partnerships in which both groups are full partners in projects.

The panelists went on to describe a number of policy, logistical and financial issues that public, private and government stakeholders need to resolve if the U.S. wants to meet or surpass the FCC’s initiative. As people roll up their sleeves and prepare for some heavy lifting, it will be difficult to ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room – politics.

“I’ve been very critical of the FCC, but I believe this is a good initiative from this particular FCC,” stated Christopher Mitchell, Director, Telecommunications as Commons Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “You have to recognize the power of the carriers in Washington. If the FCC had come out with a truly bold initiative that would have knocked us all backwards, it would have incited the carriers to give a whole bunch of money to Congress, who would have been on the FCC and probably taken away the FCC’s authority. We have to recognize that we must change more things if we’re going to have an FCC that will take the actions we would like to see it take.”

As much as some people prefer to avoid the hurly burly of the state and national capitals, it is almost inevitable that every broadband project will become political, for better or for worse. Therefore it is best to be prepared for that which we cannot avoid.

Craig Settles is a consultant who helps organizations develop broadband strategies, host of radio talk show Gigabit Nation and a broadband industry analyst. Follow him on Twitter (@cjsettles) or via his blog.