Friday, February 16, 2007

Time for a national conversation and new course on telecom

The year is still young enough for predictions for 2007. Here’s one based on the stories on this blog and elsewhere so far this year: The year 2007 is when the United States will realize that it’s time to have a serious national conversation on the future of the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure and how to get moving to bring it up to date to America’s current and future needs.

Recent reports indicate it continues to fail to meet promised upgrades by the telephone and cable company duopoly — much of it based on hopeful thinking, unrealistic goal setting and public relations spin — and is falling farther and farther behind the booming demand curve for high speed Internet-based services. Too much of the United States continues to be served by a 1970’s era “last mile” infrastructure that can’t deliver broadband digital services now and won’t able to be able do so anytime in the foreseeable future. Not in our lifetimes as one AT&T manager put it to a customer asking when AT&T’s much touted fiber optic-based “Project Lightspeed” upgrade would come to El Dorado County, California.

As a policy paper issued in January by the Communication Workers of America (CWA) aptly described it, the current telecom infrastructure is a “hodgepodge of fragmented government programs and uneven private sector responses to changing markets." Much of 2006 was wasted debating esoteric topics like “network neutrality” that did absolutely nothing to extend digital telecommunications services to a single home or small business in countless areas that are at least a decade behind where they should be today.

One probable conclusion of this national dialogue will be the existing telephone/cable company duopoly lacks the resources to upgrade and expand the nation’s telecom infrastructure rapidly enough to provide near universal service that is the hallmark of an advanced modern economy. Even if they undertook a crash program to do so — which quarterly earnings pressure from Wall Street and shareholders would prohibit — they would likely be unable to deploy updated infrastructure quickly enough and with sufficient bandwidth to meet the ever growing digital demands being placed upon their systems. They are too bogged down by their massive investments in their legacy metal wire-based local distribution systems that served them well for decades for voice phone service and analog television until the Internet began to take off in the 1990s. It’s time to chart a new course.

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