A New Deal for Broadband?

Carl Weinschenk

I've posted my opinion on the question of whether the Obama administration will play an aggressive role in rebuilding the nation's broadband infrastructure. I took a somewhat pessimistic view. I reasoned-hopefully inaccurately-that the new administration will have so much on its plate that it won't have time to worry about broadband improvements, as laudable a goal as that is.


Since I wrote that post, the economic news has gotten progressively more dire and Obama has promised a massive stimulus package and a New Deal-type infrastructure improvement project. The original New Deal included billions for tunnels, roads and other projects. This one will as well. In addition, it would be terrific if the stimulus and spending program included a ton of money for broadband.


If so, the administration and the new Congress -- which is introducing new leadership to its tech-related committees -- hopefully are studying just where the nation and the world are in terms of broadband infrastructure. This EDN piece takes an upbeat take on the tech savviness of Rep. Henry Waxman (D.-CA) and Rep. Jay Rockefeller (D.-WV). Waxman is taking over the chairmanship of the House's Committee on Energy and Commerce, while Rockefeller will be the head of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Technology.


There seems to be no unanimity on just how close the world's broadband infrastructure is to digital Armageddon. This week, for instance, Nemertes Research released a follow-on report to one they published last year. The firm again was full of gloom and doom, predicting Internet brownouts by 2012. The tale is told in a nice graphic that features separate lines for different types of capacity (optical, access line, connectivity switching and core switching). The steepest line-the most curved hockey stick -- is the one that represents demand.


Not everyone embraces Nemertes' hockey stick. In August, I interviewed Dr. Andrew Odlyzko, a professor of mathematics at the University of Minnesota. Odlyzko doesn't buy the idea that the Internet is imploding like the villain's headquarters at the end of a James Bond (or Austin Powers) movie. While he acknowledged the heavier traffic caused by video, he tells everyone to, in essence, chill out:

The question is, will this [overwhelming flood] truly happen? We simply do not see it. In spite of these potential huge sources of traffic, we see that while the rate of growth is still very vigorous, about 50 percent per year, it represents a slowdown from what it used to be.

It will be interesting to see how the market -- in addition to the new administration -- deals with the situation. This long and very interesting InfoWorld piece survives a bad headline to provide good information. The piece doesn't start with the premise that the Internet is in crisis. It does suggest, however, that each successive generation of users tends to use more bandwidth. Video is but the most obvious example-and the piece provides some startling figures on just how much capacity it eats up. This is especially true of high definition. In addition to the expanding use of the infrastructure is that the popular means of sending the data-peer-to-peer-is a highly inefficient protocol. The question is if the marketplace can work out mechanisms for controlling growth and adding capacity.


There is no question that we are in a big pickle: Our economy is cratering and our broadband infrastructure is either in bad or horrendous shape. In another age, a similar problem was met by a program that built many of the roads, bridges and tunnels that are still used today. Perhaps this crisis can provide the same long-term good to our broadband infrastructure.

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