NOFA Reactions: a Mini Round Up to Broadband Stimulus Rules

I have been digesting the NOFA (the rules for broadband stimulus projects) and I am stunned at just how much I disagree with them. I think the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a branch of the Department of Commerce in D.C., and the Rural Utilities Service have really done a disservice to this country.

Before I highlight some commentaries that I have found most interesting thus far, I want to note that this is why we take a bottom-up approach. In talking to many people working on community networks, most everyone is frustrated and the rest are really angry. It sure seemed like the feds were heading in the right direction, but the broadband stimulus rules show just how out of touch they are. We advise communities to find ways of being self-reliant. If they are able to get help from D.C., that is great; but they should never depend upon it.

We will have some more details of our reaction to the rules soon, but for now I wanted to highlight some of the folks that reacted quickly and offered interesting thoughts.

Starting on the positive side, Andrew Cohill at Design Nine thinks the encouragement for open access networks and transparency could ultimately be the defining characteristic.

This means networks that offer competitive pricing from more than one provider get preference--this is huge, and could have important long term consequences.

The rules also do something else quite important on the same page (page 66, line 1463), where there is explicit preference for open access transport, which in telecom jargon is "interconnection." The rules say that companies that post their interconnection fees publicly and agree to nondiscrimination will get preference.

If he is correct, the implications are great. However, the rules certainly could have demanded open access as a condition of public money being used rather than a limited form of extra credit for those who will encourage competition in a market suffering the utter lack of it.

Harold Feld, who rightly noted that good people struggled and worked on this, saw both positives and negatives in the rules. He defends the "broadband" speed definition from the FCC (768kbps down and 200kbps up):

I am in the minority in thinking they played this right. There are too many good projects potentially excluded by allowing only speeds of 45 mbps or better (what the House originally proposed). I dislike relying on advertised speed rather than actual speed, but that problem needs to be addressed globally because trying to enforce it here is too damn difficult.

I disagree with Harold on this, but I wanted to include it because few are more insightful and deeper thinkers on these issues. I am afraid that in 2010, we will be the only country subsidizing the private buildout of 1995-era "broadband" technology. However, Harold absolutely nailed the biggest winner from the rules:

Big Cablecos. No possible competitors and never wanted to expand into low return areas anyway. On policy, if my prediction is right, they will benefit from special access reform but TV Anywhere is now a “managed service” they can prioritize over other video traffic.

I think Geoff Daily captured my sentiments pretty closely with a post critical of the speed definition

I have to admit being totally flabbergasted by their claims that this definition "facilitates the use of many currently common broadband applications" and yet they completely ignore entire classes of "currently common broadband apps" like two-way videocalls, uploading video to YouTube, remote computer backups, webcasting video out to the world, P2P applications, and more. They're basically saying that their definition's adequate because the Internet's primarily a one-way medium. Has no one been paying attention to what's been happening on the Internet over the last 5 years?!

I was just working with a co-worker stuck on slow DSL that could not even stream video because the connection was too slow. Simply put, a 768kbps true connection is hardly broadband. A 768kbps advertised connection, which delivers considerably less, is an insult to broadband. To those who might argue that it is better than dial-up, Geoff is right to consider the long term implications - something he and I have discussed previously on our vidchats.

So regardless of whether or not you think 768/200 is adequate today, what about in 2019? Because the reality is that whatever networks we subsidize today is likely all these rural communities are going to have until we subsidize them again. So by setting the bar too low we're essentially cementing underserved communities to permanent underserved status.

Further, this definition could have the insidious effect of encouraging more false advertising from network owners (reminding me that I yesterday received a flyer from Qwest touting their "fiber-optic fast" offerings despite it really being a pathetic DSL connection unable to even offer 1Mbps upstream under the best conditions).

Notice how they specifically cite "advertised speed" rather than actual. This is bad on multiple fronts. It rewards gamesmanship when it comes to how much speed a network says it can deliver vs. what it can actually deliver. As there are additional points granted to networks that can offer higher speeds, there's now an incentive to over-promise and no penalties for under-delivering.

I asked a number of network builders and community leaders who were considering projects to react to the NOFA and most everyone is tremendously disappointed. One noted that if Obama wants to compare himself to FDR, he will have to do much better. If FDR acted like Obama, people in rural areas would be drowning in tiny pieces of wood while the federal government continued to subsidize matchstick producers rather than building electrical lines.

One could go on - if the Eisenhower Administration were populated with these folks, we would have many more dirt roads connecting everyone rather than the Interstate Highways that boosted the country's economy.

But the question is not how snarky we can be - something my generation certainly excels at - but what we can do next. As Eric Lampland noted to me, "we move on." There is certainly nothing in this that prevents communities from building the networks they need. In fact, I just found out that Lake County, MN, is working with National Public Broadband, a new nonprofit organization, to access RUS funds outside of the stimulus package to build a network.

The moral is, as always, TANSTAAFL - There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. The broadband stimulus rules are a letdown, but will not stop communities determined to succeed in the 21st century.