Saturday, September 12, 2015

Hyper local view of Internet telecom infrastructure misguided, reinforces network access disparities

City Broadband Plans: One Vision, Four Markets, Four Issues | Benton Foundation: My message today is simple: every city needs its own broadband plan.

At one time, I would have agreed with this statement by Blair Levin, who wrote the 2010 U.S. "National Broadband Plan" while serving on the staff of the Federal Communications Commission. I even went as far as paraphrasing the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill by declaring "all broadband is local" on this blog.

I no longer hold that view. It's not just about "broadband" in a given municipality or as is more often the case, a particular neighborhood. Instead, the truly important issue is ubiquitous Internet telecommunications infrastructure in keeping with the FCC's recent reclassification of Internet service as a common carrier utility. And that infrastructure is fundamentally interstate -- much like the federally funded interstate highway system -- and global. In that regard, it's not directly comparable to the municipal and cooperative electric power systems created in the early 20th century that generated and distributed power consumed locally. The Internet is a telecommunications network that reaches far beyond the borders of a given city or town and whose true value is recognized by Metcalfe's Law, which holds a network increases in utility as more users are added to it. In short, it's all about the network and not "broadband" or discrete "gigabit cities."

The hyper-local focus on this essential infrastructure for the 21st century is well meaning and understandable in the absence of strong federal leadership and support. But it's also misguided and dangerous because it serves to reinforce incremental thinking and Internet infrastructure disparities that have plagued the nation for a generation. It's also unrealistic to expect local governments to shoulder the financial burden as they continue to deal with the adverse impacts of the 2008 economic downturn and are strapped to fix crumbling roads, schools, sewer and water infrastructure and fund enormous public pension obligations.

If it is to realize the full value of the Internet, the United States should instead adopt a bold, wholistic and robustly funded national Internet infrastructure initiative to bring fiber infrastructure to all homes, businesses and institutions.


Doug Dawson said...

You are 100% correct in this. It should not be local communities that have to pay for this. Sad thing is there are a lot of rural communities that will never get real broadband without some external help.

For a whole lot less than what we pay for a large ship or a bunch of planes we could give the whole country broadband. Out priorities in this country are backward and we seem to far favor building missiles to infrastructure.

InfoStack said...

Blair is well-intentioned, but throughout his efforts over the past 6 (more like 26) years he has failed to understand true network economics, marginal costs (and pricing) and, at the end of the day, a workable business model for broadband. His approach is almost singularly supply-side thinking and quite nebulous as it comes to identifying future demand and how that demand will be satisfied continuously in a future context.

Christopher Mitchell said...

The key question in my mind is not who pays, it is who should control the network in the future - meaning making decisions about when to upgrade, how much to charge, whether to peer and on what terms, how to approach the digital divide, etc.

For the most part, it just so happens that the entity that pays (or is responsible for paying) makes the above decisions. I strongly believe the best outcomes result from these above decisions being made by entities within the community and accountable to the community.

I don't see any likelihood of these decisions being made well if they are made in Washington, DC, or in state capitals. The ratio of lobbyist strength to grassroots strength is highest the further away from local governments you get in general.

So I am firmly in the camp that believes these networks should be locally owned. Perhaps there is a method for supporting those efforts with federal dollars, though the paperwork tends to be overwhelming. In rural areas, funding for new coops would be tremendously helpful. But in much of the country, from what we have seen from the hundreds of communities that found paths forward and even hundreds more that have not, the challenge is in the will of elected officials, not some inherent insurmountable financial challenge. Our communities spend far more than is needed to justify a great network if those resources were channeled in the right way.

The problem is priorities. As long as it is more acceptable to spend lots of money of professional sports teams facilities than essential Internet infrastructure, we are in big trouble.

Fred Pilot said...

A major problem is the overdone urban "city broadband" focus. This ignores the fact that telecommunications infrastructure must optimally serve all Americans, not just those who live in cities. Plus wider availability of fiber to the premise telecommunications infrastructure will enable Americans to be less economically dependent on congested, high cost metro areas by making it easier for them to work and conduct business beyond these areas.

Local governments can certainly play a role. But given the large scope and cost of extending fiber to nearly all American premises -- which they arguably would have by now if proper policy and planning had been done 25 years ago -- we cannot rely primarily on incremental, underfunded local government initiatives. A robust federal telecom infrastructure initiative is needed to bring the United States to where it needs to be now and in the future.

Web Analytics