Blair Levin, the Aspen Institute fellow who served as lead author of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's National Broadband Plan before leaving the FCC this summer, told PCWorld last week the plan is flawed because it places too much emphasis on making landline Internet protocol-based telecommunications service accessible to all Americans.
"One of the problems we were running up against and that we should've been clearer about is that the conventional wisdom says the primary metric for measuring the validity or power of a national broadband plan is the speed of the wireline network to the most rural of residents," Levin is quoted as saying. "That way of looking at the problem is entirely wrong, is profoundly wrong -- almost every word in the sentence I just uttered is wrong. And we should've done a better job of explaining that."
If Levin could go back and rewrite the plan, landline and wireless technology would be framed synergistically, working in conjunction with each other to make a more complete telecommunications infrastructure that meets the National Broadband Plan's objective of expanding service availability to all Americans.
On this point, I agree with Levin. Until the last and middle miles of the U.S. telecommunications infrastructure can be fully upgraded to fiber, wireless has an important but interim role to play since it can be deployed more quickly than wireline plant. That's a very important consideration given that the FCC reported in late July that between 14 and 24 million Americans "still lack access to broadband, and the immediate prospects for deployment to them are bleak."
However, if Levin sees wireless connectivity as a replacement for fiber, I disagree. Wireless telecommunications is largely designed for mobile use and not to serve premises. Wireless also lacks fiber's ability to handle the exploding demand for bandwidth. There is no field-proven wireless technology that matches fiber's capacity to accommodate that growth.
As Tim Nulty, who believes fiber to the premises can pencil out even in rural areas, put it in a 2008 interview, fiber optic plant is to wireless as jumbo jets are to helicopters. "Think about 747s and helicopters,” Nulty told The Progressive magazine. “Helicopters are marvelous when they’re used for what they’re good at. But you don’t use them to fly thousands of people between Boston and Chicago. For that you need 747s.”
America's badly needed revamp of its telecommunications infrastructure should not be based on the expectation that wireless technology will overtake and render fiber wireline plant obsolete and cost ineffective. Hope is a good attitude, but does not a plan make.