Harold Feld at Public Knowledge created another five minute video on broadband policy - embedded below - that I heartily recommend. This video fits in nicely with my recent posts discussing comments submitted to the FCC on the definition on broadband, and more recently, on why the definition matters. If you want to dig in deeper to Harold's comments, I recommend his blog. If you take one thing away, remember that broadband is not a simple market of sellers and buyers, it is an ecology - impacting everything from energy efficiency to education to entertainment ... and those are just some of the e's.
In all the wrangling over how we should define broadband, I wanted to step back and remember why the definition is important.
Information networks have become essential for business, education, and entertainment. The broadband definition originally meant something faster than the dial-up speeds that topped out at 56kbps. In the late 90's, any connection faster than dial-up pretty much supported all Internet activities.
Over the years, some connections got faster while the slower connections were expanded to more people across the United States. In 2009, people who remain stuck with dial-up would be happy to get the slow speeds that first became available when DSL and cable modems debuted. On the other hand, many no longer consider those connections (often in the neighborhood of 200kbps to 768kbps for download speeds and even slower for upload speeds) to be capable of supporting many modern applications.
Muniwireless.com recently noted "Eastern and Northern Europe driving broadband and FTTH growth." Of particular interest to us is the crucial role of public investments in creating that growth:
Roland Montagne also says that competition has been driving new FTTH/FTTB projects. He mentioned that more that 56% of the FTTH/B projects were conducted by public entities such as municipalities and utilities. Incumbents originated only 10.8% of the projects.
If we want to see competition in telecommunications, we need public ownership of networks. Private networks tend toward monopoly markets, communities should build a network to ensure competition, especially the robust competition that can only come with open access full fiber-optic networks.
Craig Settles recently wrote "Debunking Myths about Government-Run Broadband" to defend publicly owned networks (the title is unfortunate as many networks are publicly owned but not necessarily run directly by the government). Nonetheless, he tackles several false claims commonly levied against public networks and offers an entertaining rebuff to those rascally incumbents down in North Carolina that keep trying to buy legislation to protect themselves from competition:
This is a slightly older story, but I wanted to make sure it made the rounds.
In "FCC Hires Industry Shill to Develop US National Broadband Plan," OpenLeft.com's Chris Bowers details the shady history of Scott Wallstein, the economics director of the FCC broadband task force.
His past affiliations and quotes regarding the state of broadband in the U.S. are quite troubling. He has said that the U.S. does not have a broadband problem and has a long history of working with "coin operated" think tanks like Progress and Freedom Foundation (so named because they tend to produce reports justifying whatever their corporate funders desire).
Our focus on the broadband stimulus is almost entirely on last-mile infrastructure because it is the most challenging and expensive problem to solve before all Americans will have affordable access to the broadband networks they need in the modern era. As we are most familiar with Minnesota, we decided to take an in-depth look on who is proposing what projects in our state.
Total Infrastructure Grants Requested for Last Mile solely in MN: at least $240 million
Total Infrastructure Loans Requested for Last Mile solely in MN: at least $85 million
The FCC recently asked for comments about how broadband should be defined. There was a marked difference between those who put community needs first and those who put profits first. Companies like AT&T and Comcast were quick to argue that the FCC should not change the definition of broadband for reasons ranging from too much paperwork to the suggestion that rural people have no need for VoIP. The honest approach would have been for these companies to say they do not want a higher definition because it will change their business plans, likely requiring them to invest in better networks for communities, and that will hurt their short term profits.
The second line of Rachel Carter's story at TimesCall.com captures the reason we care about community broadband networks:
But others argued that it’s not about whether the city will jump into the cable or Internet business; it’s about giving the city options and giving voters a choice.
Longmont, Colorado, will have a question on its November ballot asking whether the city should have the right to offer retail broadband services. This referendum is a requirement of Colorado state law (passed in June 2005 -- more details about that law from Baller.com [pdf]) for communities that want to offer such services to their community.
Johnson City, Tennessee, is considering the pros and cons of expanding the fiber network its public electrical utility is installing to connect substations in order to improve grid reliability. They may follow the example of many other Tennessee public utilities that have offered broadband services to residents, creating competition in a sector sorely needing it.
They will need to speed the process along if they are going to get any stimulus money - many communities have been considering these options for longer and are ready with plans.
Catching up a variety of recent stories:
An article from the Lafayette Advertiser notes: LUS Fiber plans faster rollout. Community networks are frequently attacked by incumbent groups and private providers for failing to immediately turn a profit after launching a network (something we have addressed here). LUS Fiber wisely started slow and will now start to ramp up the number of customers as they progress further along the learning curve of running the fiber-optic network.
Minnesota is now in poor company, along with several other states that have chosen to use telecom industry-backed Connected Nation (if unfamiliar with CN, read this report) to supply data from Minnesota to the federal government as part of the national broadband map that is being constructed.
Just how this came about explains why a group like Connected Nation thrives in the current telecommunications arena.
Mike O'Connor, the urban users' representative on the Minnesota Governor's Broadband Task Force, explains that the Minnesota Department of Commerce and Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) chose Connected Nation absent any public discussion or even consultation of the broadband task force.
Folks who are mostly interested in broadband are probably unfamiliar with video franchising laws. Many people still apparently believe that cable companies are able to get exclusive franchises from the city (granting them a monopoly on providing cable television). However, that is not true and has not been true for many years.
Most cable companies still have a de facto monopoly because it is extremely difficult to overbuild an existing cable company - the incumbent has most of the advantages and building a citywide network is extremely expensive. This is not a naturally competitive market; it is actually a natural monopoly.
The July/August issue of Broadband Properties features a number of stories relating to community broadband. Editor Masha Zager explains how the stimulus rules hurt communities:
The NOFA explicitly calls 768/200 Kbps broadband “sufficient access to broadband service to facilitate rural economic development,” but how many jobs will this kind of broadband really attract to a depressed area? How many new services can service providers sell over such networks? Will the networks support public needs for distance education or health care? And how long will it be before the equipment has to be replaced? In the words of a rural telco manager I spoke with recently, “You want to put money into something long-term if you’re going to start building networks. Don’t build something you’ll have to throw away in two or three years.”
Opponents of publicly owned broadband networks often hold up examples of wireless networks that did not turn out as planned -- more often than not, they ignorantly use examples of privately owned networks like Earthlink networks in Philly, Houston, or proposed privately owned networks in San Fran and Chicago.
It is true that many wireless networks (especially those using Wi-Fi) came in above projected costs and late. It is also true that this happened across all manner of network ownership types. GoMoorhead, a publicly owned Wi-Fi network in Minnesota, was recently sold to a private company - and I am working on a report about that. However, there was also a recent announcement that the privately owned wireless network being built in Burnsville, Minnesota, is behind schedule.
There are so many interesting articles recently (some are actually a bit older than recent, I guess).
How did Sweden get so connected? BuddeBlog took a look at how Sweden has invested so greatly into advanced fiber networks. This short post looks at factors from geography to government policy that have helped.
Andrew Cohill, an advocate of both fiber and wireless networks, offers a simple explanation for why wireless can only be part of the solution to the problem of universal broadband. Wireless just cannot provide the same high reliability and speeds of wired connections.