Sunday, March 12, 2017

West Virginia telecom infrastructure initiative embodies 3 fatal public policy flaws

Charleston Gazette-Mail | Groups push for broadband expansion in WV: Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said Tuesday that at least two broadband-related bills are in the works, and lawmakers expect to introduce legislation in the coming days. The Senate bill would offer tax credits for companies to help recoup costs of bringing internet to remote areas, said Carmichael, an executive with internet provider Frontier Communications. The bill also may authorize the state to provide loan guarantees to internet firms that plan to expand broadband service. Carmichael said some internet providers want legislation designed to bring internet service to households that don’t currently have it, while other companies support measures that would increase internet speeds.

“We want to [encourage] competition,” Carmichael said. “If we’re going to do investment of any type, it should go to the areas that have no service.” Generation West Virginia, AARP West Virginia and the state Broadband Enhancement Council held a press conference at the state Capitol Tuesday to raise awareness about the importance of high-speed internet service and to unveil a plan — called Gig Ready — to bolster support for broadband expansion.

This West Virginia effort although well intended contains three fatal flaws that are unfortunately frequently embraced by other states and by federal policymakers.
  1. Offering loan guarantees and tax credits to legacy telephone and cable companies to invest in advanced telecommunications infrastructure in the belief that will help achieve universal service. It will not. The incumbents' short term business models are designed to extract maximum cash flow from current assets and do not allow them to make significant long term capital investments in new infrastructure. Tax credits and loan guarantees can't overcome that hard economic reality.
  2. The belief that the role of government vis telecommunications infrastructure is to promote market competition. Telecom infrastructure is a natural monopoly and can and never will be a competitive market. Promoting market competition in telecom infrastructure is like promoting water skiing in the arctic.
  3. Sloganeering. Call it Game of Gigs or Gig Ready, slogans can't construct telecom infrastructure. They are not so much aspirations for the future but rather reflect a poverty of action and commitment (harder) relative to a surplus of talk (far easier).

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Net neutrality hurts health care and helps porn, Republican senator claims | Ars Technica

Net neutrality hurts health care and helps porn, Republican senator claims | Ars Technica: Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) agreed that net neutrality rules harm ISP investment and offered a lengthy analogy to explain why. Johnson said he wants to cut through the “rhetoric, slogans, and buzzwords,” before saying that enforcing net neutrality rules is like letting too many people use a bridge and ruin people’s lawns. Net neutrality rules, he said, also give pornography the same level of network access as remote medical services.

This is an unfortunate outcome of the misplaced obsession with the "net neutrality" aspect of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's 2015 Open Internet rulemaking that erased the line between legacy and advanced telecommunications services by reclassifying Internet service as a common carrier telecommunications utility under Title II of the Communications Act. The obsession with net neutrality is so exaggerated that the term has become synonymous with the rulemaking.

The Open Internet rulemaking does properly require ISPs to treat all telecommunications traffic equally and without preference as to content. But with millions of Americans left offline and many still using circa 1994 dialup access that was state of the art when Bill Clinton was serving his first term as president, the higher value of the rulemaking is bringing Internet service under the universal service and anti-redlining requirements of Title II that have governed telephone service for decades -- and not debating whether the network should give priority to porn or any other information. Those requirements also comport with Metcalfe's Law, which holds a network is only as valuable as the number of subscribers on it.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Senate to Look at Infrastructure Challenges | Broadcasting & Cable

Senate to Look at Infrastructure Challenges | Broadcasting & Cable: The Senate Commerce Committee has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday, March 1, on the telecom and transportation infrastructure challenge. The Donald Trump Administration has pledged a trillion-dollar infrastructure upgrade, which is expected to include broadband infrastructure. In addition, there are legislative efforts to spur infrastructure buildouts, and FCC chairman Ajit Pai has backed making broadband part of that effort as well.

“With a national discussion on federal infrastructure investment underway, it’s worth remembering that many Americans live far away from the highest-ticket projects their tax dollars are asked to fund,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the committee, in announcing the hearing. “This hearing will look at how wise infrastructure investment decisions can ensure that all Americans benefit from improvements to national transportation and digital networks.”

It's great to see Sen. Thune recognizing that digital telecommunications infrastructure is also important 21st century infrastructure. Yes, 20th century transportation infrastructure is also need of investment. But it shouldn't come at the expense of telecom infrastructure that like roads and highways has also been neglected for decades.

Had proper planning and policies been put in place a generation ago as I write in my recent ebook Service Unavailable: America's Telecommunications Infrastructure Crisis, nearly all American homes, schools and businesses would have fiber optic connections by 2010 rather than relying on the failed investor owned corporate business model that has caught the nation up short. That leaves millions of Americans unable to access modern advanced telecommunications services or served by poor value and sluggish metallic connections that can't accommodate the growing bandwidth demand of today and tomorrow's digital economy.

The digital economy requires the capacity to handle the efficient movement of ideas, products and services just as 20th century transportation infrastructure did for people, goods and services. Telecom infrastructure thus should be properly regarded as interstate infrastructure as is transportation infrastructure.

Friday, February 10, 2017

R&D won't solve America's urgent telecom infrastructure deficiencies

That group “really push[es] a comprehensive narrative that the U.S. broadband -- private-sector broadband -- has failed the country, that we are falling behind other countries in our broadband performance,” said Doug Brake, telecom policy analyst at ITIF and coauthor of “How Broadband Populists Are Pushing for Government-Run Internet One Step at a Time,” released in January. The populists think “we have these rapacious broadband monopolists that are not upgrading and just harvesting rents from the entire population,” Brake said. “We see that narrative as being incorrect on almost all the points that it puts forward.” Broadband populists have a two-pronged approach and use small tactical debates to achieve their overall goal, Brake said. On one hand, they support the bottom-up solution of government-owned infrastructure with internet service providers delivering services on top of it -- even while acknowledging the limitations of that approach. “We think that that model does not fundamentally support long-term innovation,” Brake said. “That’s competition just based on price andcustomer service. It’s not competition based on the technology itself.” He said he’d rather see ISPs incentivized to pour money into research and development of the next generation of broadband, for instance.
The debate over muni broadband expansion -- GCN

Brake's position is utter nonsense. Fiber optic connections to customer premises could have been made to nearly every American home, school and business by 2010 had the nation put in place the right telecommunications policy and planning in the late 1980s and early 1990s when it was becoming apparent that telecom would shift from analog to digital and be distributed via Internet protocol. Fiber optic infrastructure remains the state of the art telecommunications infrastructure technology, with plenty of capacity to carry burgeoning bandwidth demand well into the future. Performing R&D on a possible successor is fine. But it's not going to solve today's urgent telecommunications infrastructure needs that require rapid deployment of fiber connections.

As for Brake's characterization of incumbent legacy telephone and cable companies being "rapacious broadband monopolists that are not upgrading and just harvesting rents," they had better well be. Because it's exactly what their investors expect of them: minimal capital expenditures and maximizing revenues from a captive, natural monopoly market.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Gov. Brown sets California's priorities for U.S. infrastructure bill -- but telecom not on list

Brown Sets California's Priorities For Trump Infrastructure Bill - Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration has released its list of California priorities for a potential federal infrastructure funding package backed by President Trump. The list is noteworthy not only for the projects it includes but for the ones left off. On the list? Highway projects throughout the state, including new carpool and toll-charging express lanes. California’s earthquake early warning system. And, of course, Brown’s legacy projects: high-speed rail and the Delta tunnels. “Mostly, the projects that we have submitted all have a request of $100 million or more,“ says the governor's transportation secretary, Brian Kelly. “So we really did focus on larger projects with clear, long-term and short-term benefits to the state.” Notably absent? Two prominent water storage projects backed strongly by California Republicans: Sites Reservoir northeast of Sacramento and Temperance Flat Dam northeast of Fresno.

Also missing from the list: telecommunications infrastructure. This in a state regarded as a leader in information and communications technology and home to Silicon Valley as surrounding communities continue to lack modern fiber optic service. Telecom infrastructure deficiencies are most pronounced in the Golden State's Central Valley municipalities of Modesto and Fresno, in the Sierra Nevada foothills east and northeast of the state capital of Sacramento in Placer and El Dorado counties, and up the Interstate 5 corridor in Sutter, Butte and Yuba counties to the Shasta County seat of Redding. (See related post here). Is is truly good public policy to finance 20th century infrastructure while neglecting vital infrastructure for the 21st?

Sunday, February 05, 2017

U.S. requires crash federal telecom infrastructure program

Like other forms of infrastructure that were largely built out in the 20th century – such as transportation, energy, water and sewage – broadband is a foundation for economic activity across many sectors. But, unlike other potential infrastructure priorities, the public benefits of broadband could grow exponentially in the coming decades, as the nation is just beginning to realize the potential innovation and productivity gains from combining high bandwidth, low-latency connectivity with massive sensor, computing, and storage capabilities.

Unlike most other types of infrastructure, the nation’s digital infrastructure is largely corporate owned and generates revenues from paying subscribers. However, the private carriers who invest in broadband capex do not, in general, capture the full benefits of those investments (e.g., the positive externalities of the internet economy and the multipliers from increasing innovation and efficiency in adjacent sectors), so their investment levels are lower and slower than would be optimal for the country. (Emphasis added). The public-policy challenge, therefore, is to increase largely private capital flows to levels consistent with the potential public benefits of abundant, ubiquitous broadband without crowding out existing private sector investment.

The above is excerpted from a white paper by Paul de Sa, who formerly headed the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis. The paper was published on the U.S. Federal Communications Commission website last month. de Sa's point on the larger benefits of ubiquitous modern telecommunications infrastructure and its economic stimulus and multiplier effect mirrors my own, discussed in my recent eBook, Service Unavailable: America's Telecommunications Infrastructure Crisis.

I fully agree with de Sa's assessment that relying on the current dominant model of privately owned infrastructure where Internet Service Providers own the connections to customer premises as well as the services offered over them cannot support rapid and robust infrastructure construction to catch the nation up to where it needs to accommodate exploding bandwidth demand today and in the future. It's naturally limited by investment risk that comes with selling and servicing monthly subscriptions one customer premise at a time that constrains access to the needed many billions of investment capital and is prone to market failure. Until the United States explicitly recognizes the limitations of this model and treats telecommunications as the national infrastructure asset that it is and launches a crash publicly-financed telecom infrastructure initiative, the nation will continue to rapidly fall further behind as the 21st century advances.

As a footnote, de Sa's paper was retracted this week by his acting replacement, Wayne A. Leighton. (h/t to Steve Blum's blog).
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