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).

Friday, February 03, 2017

FCC’s O’Reilly defends unacceptable status quo in U.S. telecom infrastructure

As federal policymakers consider addressing America’s telecommunications infrastructure deficit as part of a broad national infrastructure modernization plan, Federal Communications Commissioner Michael O’Reilly has written a blog post clearly intended to lower expectations and preserve an unacceptable status quo. It comes at a time when the United States by 2010 should have had modern, fiber optic-based telecommunications infrastructure deployed serving every home, small businesses and public institution instead of the legacy metallic telephone and cable company infrastructure he wants to preserve. Not to mention the national embarrassment of third world satellite Internet and dialup serving too many American homes where landline telecom connections – metallic or fiber – are nonexistent.

Instead of a robust federal telecommunications infrastructure program, O’Reilly seeks to protect the incumbent telephone and cable companies by preserving their emphasis on “broadband speeds” and the related and increasingly outdated, tail chasing debate over how much speed is sufficient. That fits nicely with the legacy incumbents’ outdated metal cable connections to premises since those lack the capacity of fiber to serve burgeoning bandwidth demand. In his points about geography and population density, O’Reilly also lends support to incumbents’ redlining market practices based on premise density in violation of the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet rulemaking making Internet a universally available common carrier telecommunications utility. That speed-based versus fiber to the premise (FTTP) metric comports with the FCC’s weak subsidy program that funds incumbents’ deployment of obsolete infrastructure on a par with circa 2005 DSL.

In sum, O’Reilly’s position is all about incrementalism and buying more time for these legacy incumbent providers. Public policymakers have already allowed them to buy a quarter century of delay as American has fallen ever further behind in the 21st century, when modern telecommunications infrastructure is as critical as roads and highway were in the previous century. It’s time for that to end.

Finally, O’Reilly -- like former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler before him --miscasts telecommunications infrastructure as a competitive market. If it were, there would be lots of service providers to choose from and sufficient capital to finance their ventures. The fact that there are not reflects simple microeconomics. High cost endeavors like infrastructure erect natural barriers to new providers. In telecommunications infrastructure, incumbents also exert a chilling effect with their natural monopolies since new providers are reluctant to take on the risk of overbuilding them – a primary reason for Google Fiber’s recent retrenchment.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Neither investor-owned ISPs nor "muni broadband" can meet America's urgent telecom infrastructure modernization need

How Broadband Populists Are Pushing for Government-Run Internet One Step at a Time | ITIF: To most observers of U.S. broadband policy, the regular and increasingly heated debates in this area appear to be about an evolving set of discrete issues: net neutrality, broadband privacy, set-top box competition, usage-based pricing, mergers, municipal broadband, international rankings, and so on. As each issue emerges, the factions take their positions—companies fighting for their firms’ advantage, “public interest” groups working for more regulation, free market advocates working for less, and some moderate academics and think tanks taking more nuanced and varied positions.

But at a higher level, these debates are about more than the specific issue at hand; they are subcomponents of a broader debate about the kind of broadband system America should have. One side wants to remain on the path that has brought America to where it is today: a lightly regulated industry made up of competing private companies relying on a variety of technologies. Another side, made up of mostly public interest groups and some liberal academics, rejects this, advocating instead for a heavily regulated, utility-like industry at minimum and ideally a government-owned system made up of municipal networks. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) firmly believes the former model—lightly regulated competition—is the superior one. But if we are to get broadband policy right going forward, it’s this broader strategic issue we need to identify and debate, not just narrow tactical matters.

Broadband networks are a critical part of America’s digital technology system and, as such, the issue of how to continue to drive investment and innovation in these networks is worthy of robust and sustained debate. But the broadband policy debate should be transparent about what it really involves: Is America better off with an ISP industry that is structured the way the vast majority of the U.S. economy is structured (private-sector firms competing to provide the best product or service at a competitive price, with the role of government to limit abuse and support gaps where private-sector competition does not respond), or do we want to transform this largely successful industry model into either a regulated utility monopoly model or government-owned networks? As we ponder this question, policymakers need to understand what the debate is fundamentally about and what is at stake as broadband populists push for each one of their thousand cuts.

Actually, neither leaving telecommunications infrastructure fully in the hands of the private sector nor relying on local "municipal broadband" builds will bring the United States modern, fiber optic telecommunications infrastructure rapidly enough to meet the ever growing bandwidth demand of Internet protocol-based services. The former because of sell side market failure due to slow and uncertain return on investment inherent in its customer premise subscription-based business model. The latter because state and local governments lack the capital and debt capacity to finance publicly owned telecom infrastructure with so many competing needs for aging infrastructure such as roads, schools and sewer and water systems as well as enormous public pension obligations.

Only the federal government has the resources and policy power to meet this critical infrastructure need of the 21st century as I posit in my 2015 eBook, Service Unavailable: America's Telecommunications Infrastructure Crisis. Telecommunications infrastructure like the highway system is fundamentally interstate and not municipal, connecting states to each other and the nation to the world. It's too important to be left to either the private sector alone or state and local governments that lack the resources to do the job.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Senate Democrats to propose $1 trillion infrastructure plan

News from The Associated Press: A proposal by two of Trump's financial advisers circulated just after the election calls for using $137 billion in tax credits to generate $1 trillion in private investment in infrastructure projects over 10 years. But investors are typically interested only in projects that have a revenue stream like tolls to produce a profit. Charging tolls for roads and bridges is often unpopular. A recent Washington Post poll found that 66 percent of the public opposes granting tax credits to investors who put their money into transportation projects in exchange for the right to charge tolls. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and transportation industry lobbying groups want a hike in direct federal spending instead of tax credits. What is needed most, they say, is money to address the growing backlog of maintenance and repair projects, most of which are unsuitable for tolling.

This also applies to America's aging and obsolete telecommunications infrastructure. It should have been modernized with fiber optic technology all the way to customer premises starting a quarter of a century ago. Instead today, the nation remains on outmoded metal wire infrastructure designed for the pre-Internet days of telephone and cable TV service.

The financial points of this article also apply. Just as it won't for roads and highways, a for-profit business model isn't going to generate the low hundreds of billions of dollars needed to build the telecom infrastructure to accommodate the ever increasing demand for Internet protocol-driven bandwidth. There simply isn't enough return on investment given the enormous capital expenditure requirements. Ditto tax incentives.

Americans also understandably dislike a toll-based scheme that subjects them to the tender mercies of vertically integrated Internet Service Providers (ISPs) -- who because they own both the pipe that brings telecom services to customer premises as well as the services delivered over it -- enjoy hugely disproportionate market power. Just ask anyone who received a notice their monthly bill would be going up this year. Telecom infrastructure should be in the public realm and treated -- and funded-- as a public good.
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