The Devil Is in the ... Oh, You Know

Carl Weinschenk

There will be a great deal of maneuvering as the Federal Communications Commission defines broadband, works out a national broadband plan, and helps figure out how to dole out funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), which more commonly is referred to as the broadband stimulus. Indeed, nothing concentrates the minds of executives as much as working the system to win a competitive advantage-unless it's working overtime to protect themselves from those competitors.


The reality is that most of the real battles will take place in long filings written in stilted and boring legalese. The Washington Post describes one such battle: Microsoft and other companies in the online gaming industry think that creating a broadband plan should take into account the popularity of their wares. AT&T thinks that e-mail and other basic services should predominate.


It's an important question, since games and similar services are bandwidth hogs while e-mail -- which only teenage boys would argue is not more important in the overall scheme of things -- only uses bandwidth in dribs and drabs. E-mail also doesn't need the quality of service and related equipment that voice and video, and especially games that involve instantaneous reactions, require. These network add-ons aren't cheap, and could change the overall equations in stimulus awards if they are considered an important element of overall broadband deployment. This means that the statutory definitions of IPTV, VoIP, online gaming and other services are crucial issues that will have a big impact on what the final plan will look like.


Another example of how seemingly dull topics have a big impact is how the government approaches broadband mapping. The question is basic: How will the broadband status of an area under consideration-a state, a county, a town, etc. -- be determined? How many residents or businesses in Cherokee County, KS or Millard County, Utah , for instance, must have broadband connectivity at the minimum level set by the FCC for the entire county to be officially considered to have broadband? One person or business? 10 percent? Fifty percent plus one? 100 percent? Not surprisingly, there is great concern over who actually will do the mapping, in addition to how much it will cost.


Who wins or loses in the final analysis will depend on which industry wins the lion's share of these small battles, few of which generate much attention. Thousands of lobbyists don't get paid millions of dollars to argue over whether there will be a broadband plan. They get paid to control the way in which it is put together.

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