Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fiber infrastructure build out -- not throughput speed-- should be focus of planned stimulus funding

The Washington Post reports today a debate is brewing over how broadband should be defined under the incoming Obama administration's goal to fund new broadband telecommunications infrastructure as part of its planned economic stimulus package. Specifically, the debate is over what level of throughput defines broadband.

Throughput speed is not the issue. Building out fiber optic infrastructure over the local access network -- the so-called "last mile" -- is. Fiber provides a proven, future proof technology that can accommodate the rapidly increasing demand for bandwidth needed by video and other bandwidth-intensive applications. Art Brodsky of Public Knowledge correctly observes in the Post article that providing stimulus funding to telcos for increasingly obsolete metal wire-based broadband services would turn into a wasteful boondoggle.

History supports Brodsky's warning. The bell companies that today comprise AT&T, Verizon and Qwest were to have built out their networks with the tax incentives provided more than a decade ago under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to provide fiber connections to all homes and businesses by 2006. They didn't. Consequently, the U.S. suffers with incomplete telecom networks that leave millions unable to get decent Internet access more than a decade after the law's enactment. Repeating this error would ignite a race to the bottom and leave the U.S. even further behind other developed nations when it comes to broadband Internet access and modern IP-based telecommunications services.

Rather than large telcos and cable companies, economic stimulus funding should be directed to local entities including for profit companies, nonprofit cooperatives and local governments to construct fiber optic infrastructure over the critical but long neglected last mile.

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