Who Will Rebuild the Nation's Broadband Infrastructure?


Craig Settles probably is worried by this piece in The Wall Street Journal. Last week, the well-known consultant told me in an interview that one of the things leading to a rebirth in municipal Wi-Fi-which is now an element of the bigger category of municipal broadband-is that such projects will be a key element of the Obama Administration's economic recovery program.


Settles said that the long-term success of such a project will depend on who designs and runs it. A couple of things are pretty much a given, even in a worst-case scenario: A lot of people will be put to work building a national broadband infrastructure and such a project will improve the lives of the 306 residents of Agra, Kan., the 999 souls who call Omaha, Texas (not Nebraska) home and similar tiny towns and villages.


But the longer term and perhaps more subtle benefits still are up in the air. To effectuate fundamental change, Settles suggests, there must be ongoing programs alongside the fiber, servers and switches. Settles' point is that neither of the two groups jockeying for position-the incumbent telcos and the consultants, academics and assorted camp followers whose vocation is following the money-have the skills or desire to work effectively over the long haul at the local level.


The WSJ story details how the cable and phone companies are maneuvering to build the network. In a way, it's a bit of a relief that the incoming administration declined comment. It is not surprising that the incumbents are trying to gain favor with the new power holders. It would have been more disturbing if the article suggested that the new administration were taking the bait. Hopefully, Obama and company will lean on the telcos' money and technical smarts-but without letting them have undue influence on the overall nature of the project. Settles may well be a bit happier to read this piece. He told me that one of the key groups that must be heard are people on the ground in each locality. The story describes a meeting held by Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar in St. Paul to discuss economic recovery and broadband infrastructure in the state. I think the list of attendees would please Settles, including local representatives from education, communications, government and health care.


This rather mixed-up Wired commentary is a sign of the confusion that Obama and his administration will have to wade through. The writer starts off the statement that during the New Deal, the government ended up paying people to dig unnecessary ditches. It's a disingenuous way to start a story, since those same people created highways, bridges and tunnels that we still use. Indeed, it makes it difficult to take the rest of the piece very seriously. The writer's thesis is that any mass investment in a national broadband infrastructure is a fool's errand because the carriers haven't been forced to provide meaningful information about the status of the network today. How can something be fixed if precisely what is broken is unknown?


There are several problems with the argument. The lack of disclosure by the telcos may indeed make things more difficult, but the writer clearly underestimates the amount of information that exists from telcos, the FCC and from other sources. Simply throwing up their hands because of the gaps of data is an insult to the very smart people who study these issues. In any case, the writer offers no suggestion on what should be done to improve broadband and, in the process, help stimulate the economy.