Blair Levin, who exited as executive director of the Omnibus Broadband Initiative at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in May to become a fellow at the Aspen Institute, has penned a white paper issued last week by the think tank calling for retasking the Universal Service Fund (USF) from subsidizing basic telephone service in high cost areas to defraying the cost of deploying advanced telecommunications infrastructure.
Specifically, Levin advocates $10 billion in USF funding subsidize infrastructure capable of supporting the FCC's current minimum throughput standard of 4 Mbs down and 1 Mbs up to nearly all premises by 2020. Levin also proposes using USF funding to support "the adoption of broadband by low-income Americans and other non-adopter communities."
Levin's paper is based on some fundamental flaws. Levin has confined his thinking to the investor owned telco paradigm whose market failure is responsible for the inadequate, incomplete and outmoded telecom infrastructure that plagues much of the United States today in rural, quasi rural and metro areas. This infrastructure needs a massive revamping and it won't happen with just $10 billion in USF subsidies. In an interim report on its National Broadband Plan released in September 2008, the FCC estimated it would cost as much as $350 billion to build next generation telecom infrastructure to serve 100 million American homes. Ten billion dollars by comparison would barely make a dent.
This isn't to argue for much larger USF subsidies to telcos. Instead of appropriating $10 billion to subsidize infrastructure that will be obsolete well before 2020, the U.S. should face the fact that incumbent investor owned telcos simply can't afford to deploy the next generation of Internet protocol-based telecommunications infrastructure in a timely manner. The business case just doesn't pencil out. AT&T essentially conceded this point in a Dec. 21, 2009 filing with the FCC, pointing to the "enormous" amount of capital necessary to complete the build out of required infrastructure to ensure all Americans have access to IP-based services just as basic telephone service is nearly universal.
Instead of Levin's failed private market model, the U.S. instead should support policies that treat advanced telecommunications infrastructure as a public infrastructure like roads and highways such as advocated by Andrew Cohill and others. Allowing the private sector to attempt to build this vital infrastructure is economically untenable.
Levin's proposed use of USF monies to support "adoption of broadband by low-income Americans and other non-adopter communities" unfortunately amplifies a cynical canard advanced by legacy telcos and their astroturf groups. The unstated goal is to lower expectations and keep the calendar fixed in 1999 when Americans were just beginning to adopt "broadband" and "high speed" Internet access in personal computing. The Internet protocol-based infrastructure America needs now and in the future isn't just about computers connecting to the Internet for email and viewing web pages. It will support voice, video, teleconferencing, telework, telemedicine and uses that haven't yet been conceived.