The Battle for Nationwide Broadband Starts in Earnest

Carl Weinschenk

It is surprisingly hard to offer meaningful commentary about the National Broadband Plan announced by the Federal Communications Commission earlier this week.

PC Magazine has a nice rundown of the plan, which covers everything from wireless to wired, online health, education, energy management, first responders, services to the underserved and more.


The sheer size of it all makes it tempting and perhaps appropriate to stand back and say insightful things such as, "Gee, that's ambitious" and "Let's just wait and see what happens." How's that for insight?


Of course, that's a bit facetious. Experts will offer a lot of valuable insight from the social, technical, political and financial points of view. At this point, however, observers need to let the dust settle a bit before dissecting what the administration is contemplating and its chances of success.


It also is important to understand the bigger context. The plan touches on a number of touchstone social issues, including the limits of government responsibility to proactively care for its citizens (the same question that is at the heart of the health care debate), the limits of the government's right to compel industry to do things it deems important and other dissertation-worthy issues. In other words, the national broadband plan is as much about the administration's political philosophy on the role of government as it is about spectrum and access. That, as candidate Obama famously said about something else, is above my pay grade.


He was kidding.


I am not.


It also is important to understand that the statement by the FCC is just a starting point. Nothing is likely to meet the intensity level of the health care debate, including broadband. The health care debate is a proxy fight over the extent of the Obama Administration's power. For this reason, no issue will rise to the same level: Health care, to perhaps an unhealthy level, will determine the success of the next three or seven years of Obama's time in office.


<strong>Broadband policy will run a respectable second, however</strong>. High-speed access is an enabler, like education, rather than an end in itself that spills over into just about everything else. It also is a lightning rod.


Be prepared for a long process. The administration's goals are so broad and their impact potentially so great to dozens of powerful and wealthy constituencies that it will take years to work everything through. In The FCC Strikes a Broadband Blow, on CTO Edge, Wayne Rash writes that this tall order gets even taller because of the economic environment we're working within. What the FCC said this week should be seen as an opening bid. And, as with any opening bid, it contains a mix of things that are fundamental and things that can be bartered away for expediency's sake. The plan as it stands now is a wish list that will be tweaked, if not radically changed, before it gets anywhere close to becoming law.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Mar 18, 2010 7:49 PM Dave Borgioli Dave Borgioli  says:

This is a very ambitious but very vague goal.  There are so many issues here that it is hard to know where to start.  First, we have to recognize that like everything the devil is in the details.  It is great to say that everyone should have access to very fast internet access.  In the FCC document you provided a link to, they state that 100 million Americans don't have broadband however the more important figure is that 14 million want it but can't get it.  That suggests that 86 million don't want it.  As more and more generations grow up with exposure to it, and as we continue to become more and more dependent upon it, that figure will decline to some extent.

The real question is how will the government accomplish the stated goals?  Will they encourage private industry, through tax and other incentives, to build the infrastructure necessary to meet the goals?  Will they provide direct investment and create some sort of authority?  Will they nationalize the infrastructure and let private companies provide the services that run on it?  Will they create or allow a monopoly to develop and eventually break it up, ala Ma Bell?  What form of incentives will be necessary if they let private businesses develop this?  How will they allow competition, including competing technologies?  How much will this cost and who is paying for it?

There is going to be a long and fairly major battle about how do this as well as the correct philosophical approach.  This gets back into what subsidies are appropriate.  It is very expensive to wire rural areas so we'll have to determine what the correct amount of subsidies are needed to make this happen.  Are there other technologies that will meet these goals or come close?  If we are going to accept coming close, how close is close enough? Will we say that if you want to live 'out there' then you have to pay for it?  Can this be compared to something akin to the TVA and other similar depression era projects?

For example, satellite communications may be fast, but there are latency issues that may need to be addressed.  A satellite in geostationary orbit can have latency of between 250 and 900 ms.  Even the proposed Ob3 network at some 4,800 miles orbit will have a latency of 125 ms albeit with about 1 Gbps speed.  Is this acceptable?

I like the goals and look to Korea as an example of some positives that can come from this.  During the Asian meltdown they made a commitment to install very high speed Internet in the entire country.  They found that entirely new jobs were created.  It may distance learning very practical, furthering educational advancement and reducing costs.  There were many other examples of new jobs being created and increased efficiencies also.

As I mentioned earlier, the devil is in the details and I will withhold final judgment until I see the details.


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