Sunday, August 05, 2012

Big Bandwidth Can Unlock a New Competitive Advantage - Blair Levin - Voices - AllThingsD

Big Bandwidth Can Unlock a New Competitive Advantage - Blair Levin - Voices - AllThingsD

I haven't always seen eye to eye with Blair Levin, lead author of the Federal Communications Commission's National Broadband Plan issued in 2010 shortly before he joined the Aspen Institute think tank that year.  However, the above linked opinion article by Levin recently published in All Things D includes a number of statements with which I heartily agree.

First, Levin seems to be abandoning his prior stance that the private sector alone must invest in the massive, multi-billion dollar build of the necessary telecommunications infrastructure America needs to be competitive in an information based economy.  Levin now shares my view that incumbent, investor owned incumbent providers aren't in a position to do so because of their need to pay large dividends in the case of telcos and service high debt loads in the case of cable companies. "When it comes to wireline access to the Internet, instead of discussing upgrades, we are discussing bandwidth caps, tiers and rising prices. Instead of witnessing investment for growth, we are witnessing harvesting for dividends," Levin observes.
Levin also appears to have had an epiphany on what premises telecommunications service should be capable of delivering. Two years ago, Levin advocated for the subsidization of infrastructure than could deliver the FCC's minimum throughput standard of 4 Mbs down and 1 Mbs up to nearly all premises by 2020.  Levin now advocates what Andrew Cohill and others have dubbed "big broadband" (I prefer Levin's term, "big bandwidth"), perhaps not surprisingly since Levin also recently founded Gig U, an organization that Levin writes will build "gigabit hubs in nearly a dozen communities across the country, as well as a project to bring a 25X+ upgrade to hundreds of communities in rural America."  As to the latter project, this is the first I've heard of it and will be watching closely since it is these communities and not the university towns prioritized by Gig U that have the greatest need, being effectively disconnected from the Internet and relegated to substandard dialup and satellite connections.

I also found myself in strong agreement with Levin's call for a massive attitudinal shift away from the current mindset of bandwidth poverty fostered by incumbent providers who want to create the impression that more bandwidth cannot be created and therefore must be rationed and assessed a price premium.  Levin instead calls for a  “psychology of bandwidth abundance:” 
This psychology is what has fueled the uniquely American spirit of experimentation and innovation — from the first wave of European immigrants to the post-World War II America that helped rebuild Europe and Asia and created our modern economy and unleashed huge new industries from transportation to telecommunications. Unfortunately, however, the current environment suggests that we aren’t building that foundation. International studies on wireline bandwidth use differ, but all suggest we are mid-tier at best, and declining. 
Lest anyone doubt that the United States stands at a policy crossroads when it comes to upgrading its outdated telecommunications infrastructure, Levin notes that "[f]or the first time since American ingenuity birthed the commercial Internet, we do not have a single national wireline provider with plans to deploy a better network. For most Americans, five years from now, the best network available to them will be the same network they have today."  Levin's absolutely right on this point.

Finally, Levin notes this dismal state of affairs where accessing the Internet in 2017 will for many Americans be much like it was three decades before is not inevitable.  Levin is correct when he suggests that we must find ways to lower the cost of building needed infrastructure rather than shrugging and claiming it is simply out of reach:
We can regain leadership by improving the math for wireline investment through policy choices that have the effect of lowering capital or operating expenses or by raising the potential revenues or competitive threat to incumbents or new entrants. We have done this before. In fact, every new communications network deployment or upgrade has been preceded by a policy change that had one or more of these impacts. 

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