Friday, April 09, 2010

FCC's National Broadband Plan needs bottom up incentives to bridge last mile

America's telecommunications infrastructure is least complete along the so-called last mile (referred to by some as the "first mile") that bridges middle mile distribution backhaul to homes and businesses. The U.S. Federal Communications recognized this in a footnote in a chapter addressing broadband availability in its recently released National Broadband Plan, noting 7 million housing units lie outside cable company networks or more than approximately 11,000-12,000 feet from telco distribution equipment providing DSL service. Six million housing units lack access to terrestrial broadband capable of providing downloads at speeds the FCC minimally defines as broadband because they are situated more than 16,000 feet from the nearest DSLAM.

The FCC's plan sets a goal of providing at least 100 million homes access with download speeds of at least 100 Mbs per second and upload speeds of at least 50 Mbs per second by 2020. In an interim report released in September, the FCC estimated reaching the "100/100" goal would cost as much as $350 billion.

The "100/100" goal is laudable. But a more pressing infrastructure shortfall now mires millions in the early 1990s with dialup access or subpar satellite Internet access that's a national embarrassment that should only be offered in Alaska or the north woods of Maine. The FCC report estimates bridging that gap would require existing providers to spend $24 billion on upgraded and expanded infrastructure. Investor-owned legacy providers aren't going to spend that kind of money. So the FCC proposes remaking the Universal Service Fund and other programs designed to subsidize legacy voice telephone service in high cost areas into the Connect America Fund (CAF). Recognizing this would yield just $15.5 billion over the next decade, the FCC's plan also calls on Congress to appropriate additional subsidies of a "few billion dollars" annually over the next 2-3 years to accelerate construction of advanced telecommunications infrastructure.

The weakness of the FCC's plan is that it relies too much on investor-owned telco and cable providers already burdened with outdated, legacy wire plant and the inherent limitations of their for-profit business models. These providers must naturally place their proprietary business interests ahead of any national goal for transitioning the nation's currently outmoded telecommunications infrastructure to one that delivers a range of Internet-protocol based services via fiber over the last mile. Consider, for example, that neither of the nation's largest telcos are currently expanding their own plants to bring fiber to customer premises. AT&T has except for some greenfield developments chosen to build out fiber only to neighborhood nodes, relying on legacy copper wire connections to reach customers. Verizon recently called a halt to further expansion of its FiOS fiber to the premises plant.

While the FCC's plan urges Congress to boost funding of the Rural Utilities Service's
Community Connect program intended to provide funding for broadband to communities that are otherwise unserved, it doesn't go far enough. Instead of largely relying legacy providers to build out advanced telecom infrastructure from the top down to reach the last mile, it really needs to provide incentives that work from the bottom up.

One that holds promise is giving home and small business owners tax breaks to build their own last mile fiber much like current tax law provides incentives for solar power generation equipment. Tax breaks for properties with fiber "tails" as they were described in a November 2008 paper issued by the New America Foundation would help local governments and telecom cooperatives build fiber infrastructure since the tax savings would make it easier for property owners to pay fees for connection costs or fund coop memberships. Building out broadband infrastructure is primarily a business model problem. Providing tax credits for fiber "tails" would provide impetus to urgently needed alternative business models for modernizing America's telecom infrastructure.

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