Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Guiding principles for U.S. broadband infrastructure economic stimulus

As Congressional leaders and the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama mull economic stimulus legislation including a portion of which is expected to be devoted to telecommunications infrastructure to boost broadband Internet access, I offer these guiding principles:

1. The focus should be on the so-called "last mile" or local access network portion of the system. There's a broad consensus that the lack of adequate broadband access in the United States is due to technological shortcomings on this segment of the telecommunications infrastructure, its weakest link. The overall goal should be full build out of this currently incomplete but vital infrastructure to serve all residents and businesses.

2. The "copper wall" that comprises the last mile telecommunications infrastructure is the primary barrier to wider broadband Internet access. It has been obsolete for about a decade and will become increasingly so as demand for broadband access and more bandwidth intensive content like video grows. The copper wall should be torn down and replaced with fiber optic cable, either aerial or buried depending on local construction cost factors and neighborhood preferences. Calls by large telcos for funding for DSL over copper should be rejected. Funding for such projects would keep the U.S. lagging behind other developed nations on broadband telecommunications technology and constitute an economic bailout to build increasingly obsolete technology rather than a true stimulus.

3. The last mile is the most local element of the nation's telecommunications infrastructure. Accordingly, stimulus should favor local entities to replace copper with fiber such as locally owned private companies, local governments and fiber cooperatives, the latter aided by incentives to encourage homeowner-owned fiber over the last mile.

The 12 year period following the enactment of the 1996 Telecommunications Reform Act has shown providing tax breaks and other incentives to large publicly traded telcos has not resulted in adequate capital expenditure on infrastructure to serve the nation's future telecommunications needs or the selection of broadband technology best suited to do so.

As for private providers, Congress and the Obama administration should note that even generous subsidies to incumbent telcos to build out broadband infrastructure may prove indequate as seen from their less than enthusiastic response to a California Public Utilities Commission program that subsidizes broadband deployments in unserved and underserved areas with a surcharge on intrastate voice long distance calls.

The investment cycle of these companies is apparently too short to earn a return on broadband infrastructure investment even at the 40 percent funding level provided by the program -- and even for arguably obsolete DSL equipment proposed in the handful of projects approved by the CPUC in 2008. Accordingly, broadband infrastructure stimulus funding directed to community-based cooperatives, nonprofits and local governments would likely produce the most rapid deployments.

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