This New York Times article (registration required) provides a short summary of this excellent article by Thomas Bleha published at Foreign Affairs.

BROADBAND NATION?

In the first three years of the Bush administration, the United States dropped from 4th to 13th place in global rankings of broadband Internet usage. Today, most U.S. homes can access only “basic” broadband, among the slowest, most expensive, and least reliable in the developed world, and the United States has fallen even further behind in mobile-phone-based Internet access. The lag is arguably the result of the Bush administration’s failure to make a priority of developing these networks. In fact, the United States is the only industrialized state without an explicit national policy for promoting broadband.

It did not have to be this way. Until recently, the United States led the world in Internet development. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency conceived of and then funded the Internet. In the 1980s, the National Science Foundation partially underwrote the university and college networks — and the high-speed lines supporting them — that extended the Internet across the nation. After the World Wide Web and mouse-driven browsers were developed in the early 1990s, the Internet was ready to take off. President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore showed the way by promoting the Internet’s commercialization, the National Infrastructure Initiative, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and remarkable e-commerce, e-government, and e-education programs. The private sector did the work, but the government offered a clear vision and strong leadership that created a competitive playing field for early broadband providers. Even though these policies had their share of detractors — who claimed that excessive hype was used to sell wasteful projects and even blamed the Clinton administration for the dot-com bust — they kept the United States in the forefront of Internet innovation and deployment through the 1990s.

As you know this is a subject I am seriously concerned about not do much from the standpoint of who is to blame but how we can change policy to deliver quality broadband to everywhere in our nation as quickly as possible.

From my perspective, there is no acceptable excuse we should accept to hold this deployment back. The rewards are far to great for us to even consider putting this off and the potential for economic devastation is far to great to ignore.

What has happened? Where did we divert our attention from this goal and become one of the worst connected countries in the world? Is this simply a matter of policy? Can anyone seriously believe that the administration created road blocks to impede the national deployment of broadband or is this simply a matter on not understanding the dynamics? Either way, the issue needs to be refocused from assessing blame to how we can not only fix the problem but also do it in a timely fashion before the damage becomes devastating.

To that end, let’s take a look at the potential alternatives.

The first and most obvious is the ILECs who have been lobbying for as close to complete control of this infrastructure for as long as anyone would care to remember. IF we wish to take this option seriously, we need to ask ourselves two serious questions. Do we have any faith that the ILECs could deploy a national network in a reasonable period of time? The second question (and one that is certainly more important) is do we honestly believe that the ILECs are a sustainable entity and are capable of being viable in the long term?

The past history of this industry seems to show that the ILECs have almost never met the projections that they have made in terms of not only cost but also timelines. This is a very seriously damning piece of evidence. While a case could be made that the ILECs were able to roll out a telecommunications network and keep it running for the better part of the century we must also say that if this solution had satisfied the majority of Americans there never would have been such a backlash as the one that forced the monopoly to be broken up and competition to be introduced. With the exceptions of the ILECs themselves I believe the opinion is nearly universal that this decision was the right move and when you stop to think about it whenever you get that many people to agree on anything one has to wonder if this shouldn’t be considered as a fact.

One more point to consider, how long would it take the ILECs to deploy complete broadband coverage over the entire US? I am not sure anyone could reliably provide us with a number. I can tell you that is this project were to be mandated the lead time it would take for the necessary hiring, equipment acquisition and the actual buildout would probably be measured in decades as opposed to years.

The next most viable candidate is the cable industry. If we take a look at the cable industry we find that they have many of the same challenges that the ILECs have. I don’t believe that even the most optimistic predictions would give this industry a reasonable time to connect the entire country. Let’s face it, there are simply too many miles of cable to be strung and too few customers to collect revenue for this industry to be able to succeed in this without an incredible amount of subsidization – something I am sure we would all like to avoid if possible. Please note – I cannot see how the ILECs would be able to deploy any kind of universal network with these levels of subsidization too.

Moving down the list, we have the satellite providers. As the technology sits we have an incredibly expensive investment with almost no return from a state of the art point of view. As long as satellites are stationed 22,000 miles out in orbit we will have to deal with a lag time that prevents the institution of many of the services the next generation of the net will need. Couple that with the bit caps all of the companies now put in place and the reality is that this is simply the choice of last resort – continuing the digital divide.

The LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellite technology is advertised to cure the latency issue (and should) but there is still the issue of total bandwidth available coupled with the total cost to deploy and maintain this type of system. Still, this might be a technology we will have to move forward with as an intermediate step for some of the most rural areas. If so, this will be one of the worst examples of a Band Aid solution I can think of. Hold you nose and put up with it if you must but the reality is I look at this technology as I used to look at AM radio – is it better to have an AM radio and leave it off or not have one to begin with?

For the sake of sanity I am going to lump some of the ideas for blimps and other continuous airborne aircraft in with the satellite technology. While I admit this is not fair as the latency issue and the issue of aggregate bandwidth isn’t as pronounced with this technology the cost to build and continually maintain this concept makes it one I have a hard time accepting. I am sure that at some point the total cost of operation crosses the line where a fiber deployment is a better investment.

Then we have the WISP industry – one that for the sake of fairness I will break up into two segments. Instead of the usual division of licensed and license exempt I am going to instead look at what I call the professional and amateur deployments.

For professional deployments I would like to use three very different companies as examples; Clearwire, Towerstream and Verizon.

The reality is that each one of the companies I mentioned above has some very interesting things going for them and also some serious deficiencies. However, since we are talking in terms of universal broadband coverage I believe it is safe to say that none of the companies listed above will be able to meet that requirement. In fact, all of them are more dependent on a minimum population density that would be forced to ignore most of the rural areas of this country

Let’s look at the amateur WISPs (as I have labeled them) in this respect. This is a very interesting group as they have already shown that they can effectively provide service to rural areas in a sustainable manner. However, the three things that are preventing this industry from moving forward in my opinion are the cost of upstream connectivity, the outright cost of equipment to build their networks and the fact WISPs are relegated to a few slices of near worthless spectrum cluttered with interference generated by all kinds of devices.

The good news is that the FCC has provided WISPs with a slice of spectrum (3650) that might finally allow them to actually deploy reliable infrastructure and provide service in these areas. The downside is that in order for this to be successful we need equipment that is very inexpensive. Since this band is not produced in the kinds of quantities that WiFI is the reality is that any kind of equipment that might be manufactured is probably going too expensive for WISPs to utilize. If the cost of the equipment can be dropped (the promise of WiMAX?) along with the cost to connect WISPs we might actually see a viable WISP industry start to answer the problem of providing real connectivity to the most rural areas of the country.

Is there one right technology that we should be counting on to make universal broadband access a reality in this country? I don’t believe so. If we are to move this goal into high gear we are probably going to need all of these technologies to work together.

Here is what I would suggest.

We change the priorities of the ILEC to middle mile (setting up ultra high capacity backbones) to everywhere in the country instead of their current focus of trying to own the customer right down to the last foot. We also encourage the cable industry to also build out high capacity pipes into rural areas. As these pipes are highly profitable I believe this is perhaps the best way for these companies to take advantage of the opportunities this kind of push for universal broadband might offer them. Once the entire country has the high capacity backbone in place we can then reinstitute the race for the last mile customer.

At the same time we also need to encourage the wireless providers to also deploy high capacity pipes to connect areas that otherwise would be left to last. This could be done with ease if the powers that be wanted to. Let’s manage to put together guaranteed funding for projects like this coupled with mandated connectivity to the first mile at subsidized prices. Let’s make the equipment less expensive by pushing the
demand through the roof so as to have the scale of economics kick in forcing competition up and prices down.

Finally, there is one more thing we need to do – get the idiots out of the decision making positions. I’m sorry to say this but if you don’t know what you’re talking about, you shouldn’t be part of this most critical decision process.

Yes, in case you had any doubts, I’m looking squarely at you over there!

This is not something you pick up in a fifteen minute lecture. This is a critical infrastructure and requires people who understand this complicated subject to be given the authority and freedom to do what is right. If you don’t know that you qualify for this, you most certainly don’t. If that is the case I respectfully ask that you give up any position of authority you may have and step aside, yielding to those of us that do.

This is our country, our future and probably the single biggest challenge we will face in this generation. This is no place for well-intentioned amateurs.

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