Universal Broadband: A Laudable Goal, but it Must be Done Carefully

Carl Weinschenk

A report from a Federal Communications Commission task force says that the cost of universal broadband for the United States could be $20 billion to $350 billion.


There are two striking things about those two numbers: How high the price tag is for the gold-plated 100 megabits per second (Mbps) or faster version is, and the huge discrepancy between that and the bargain-basement version.


The report mentioned many of the impressive uses of a wired/wirless national broadband network. They run the gamut from telemedicine and other health care-related tasks to a trio of smart things: smart homes, smart grids and smart transportation.


Folks who have been following telecommunications for a few years should be getting a sense of dej vu. At the dawn of the Wi-Fi age, municipalities large and small fell over themselves in announcing projects. Many of the projects failed, essentially for two reasons: As well intended as they were, the initiatives lacked cohesive business plans. As they struggled to hang on, low-cost public Wi-Fi from a variety of sources-coffee shops, airports, convention centers, etc.-further eroded their customer bases. Happily, municipal Wi-Fi has made something of a comeback. But the road has been far steeper than its original proponents anticipated.


It will be interesting to see if the scenario recurs. Of course, it's too early to tell whether the lessons have been learned. Will the feds create sensible business plans and recognize that the networks won't exist in a vacuum? It's a good sign that the drivers mentioned in the report are real and substantial, not simply the idealistic desire to bridge the digital divide that dominated the earliest thinking a generation ago. Make no mistake: Bring telecom to those that don't have it is a laudable goal. It just can't sustain a competitive business all by itself.


It is possible that private entities will do what they did the first time around, and fill in the demand vacuum before the governmental-sponsored projects are deployed. For instance, this week Verizon said it is offering free Wi-Fi to small- and medium-size businesses that subscribe to its broadband services. It's not exactly and apples-to-apples comparison, of course. But it does show that there will be many sources of wireless broadband available to consumers and businesses, and these may take the edge of the demand for a national blanket.


Hopefully, this time around a way will be found to seamlessly knit the private and public pieces together. For instance, Cablevision is aggressively expanding its Wi-Fi cloud over its New York City metropolitan area footprint. Perhaps the private coverage can be coordinated with the national program. Even if the private entity doesn't directly contribute bandwidth, the government-sponsored network likely would get by with a less ambitious network due to the presence of the private entity. The bottom line is that there must be close coordination and cooperation.

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