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Why Washington Won't Give Consumers the Broadband They Want

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istock_000005432570xsmall The Federal Communication Commission yesterday afternoon released a notice of its open meeting to be held next Thursday. The two most significant items planned for the meeting is an attempt to gather more information on competition in the wireless industry and a request for help in defining broadband for the national broadband plan. The latter item is explained in detail in the FCC blog post:

Today the FCC is releasing a Public Notice, or PN, on the best way to define broadband. As the Public Notice points out, much of the recent debate tends to center on throughput speeds. Engineers know that these numbers by themselves are most often misleading. For example, in most cases the “advertised” throughput speed has a tenuous relation with the actually delivered speed, which will actually vary over time, depending on the application, the server, and many other factors.

Defining broadband is an important effort (so is mapping out where broadband is), but consumers are likely to be disappointed by the National Broadband Plan, because the divide between what the American people want and how the government works means a lot of their desires will fall into the chasm between. That divide is becoming increasingly clear. Last month, Blair Levin, a former FCC staffer and the head of the National Broadband Plan task force, expressed frustration at the quality of suggestions he was getting from consumers with regard to ways to improve broadband service. He said they exhibited “sloppiness” and a “lack of seriousness and purpose.”

A Google (s goog) effort to generate public comments on the state of the nation’s broadband resulted in the following top suggestions: “Remove the monopolies held by cable companies.” and “Make Broadband a Utility. Internet is like phone service, water service, or electricity. It is quickly becoming almost necessary to have it. Since Internet itself is a service, it should become a Utility with no filtering.” But while they raise some valid points, the FCC needs more to work with. The top-ranked suggestion on the list came from Richard Whitt, Google’s Washington telecom and media counsel, who wrote: “Install broadband fiber as part of every federally-funded infrastructure project. Most of the cost of deployment is due to tearing up/repaving roads. Laying fiber during public works projects already underway would dramatically reduce costs.”

That’s the type of concrete policy decision that the FCC can take and evaluate. Though in addition to deciding whether putting fiber into road projects would help bring broadband to where it’s needed, the FCC would also have to consider who would get access to that fiber and what sort of rules they’d have to follow, since government dollars bought it. Already the large carriers are reluctant to take government handouts under the stimulus package for broadband, in part because they don’t want to deal with any of the federal strings that might be attached.

These are just a few examples to show how the hope of getting 100 Mbps two-way fiber connections to every home could somehow morph into a policy that delivers a minimum of 768 kbps to rural areas with no access. Just like in business, a plan is good but the execution is key. At least in a corporation everyone is theoretically fighting for the same goal. With politics, folks responsible for the execution don’t necessarily even agree on the plan.

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23 Responses to “Why Washington Won't Give Consumers the Broadband They Want”

  1. 100 Mbps is very nice to everyone’s home, but it is more expensive than lower rate options. In rural areas, it is doubly expensive. I recall a story about a telco spending $50k to run a phone line to a mobile home in a rural area, and then the owners soon moved the mobile home thus stranding all that investment. That is enough cash to deliver wireless “broadband” to at probably 50-100 homes. Let’s get the rural areas access to decent rates (even as low as 768 kbps), and then work on upgrading the network to provide higher rates. The most valuable broadband bps are the first ones (beyond what dial-up can do, of course).

    Realize that in the US, equality is very important. Sometimes even at the expense of liberty. Toqueville had it right (see I find this one of the most insightful things he wrote.

  2. Free market, my butt!

    Whether the attempt to define broadband occurs at this meeting or another, in order to properly regulate what has become an ologoploy, and near monopoly in some states/areas, the FCC must establish a minimum download/upload speed that has to be available 24/7 in order to use the term “Broadband”. The manner that companies sell 3MG, 5MB, 10MG, etc. service now, while never guaranteeing a minimum speed is like letting them get away with fraud.

    The fact that we understand exactly why individual connection speeds rise and fall is why this has to be demanded. Whatever amount of inftrastructure (repeaters, nodes, extenders, amplifiers, etc) an individual service providor must invest in to guarantee the established miminum (with some small temporary exceptions allowed), so be it.

    In fact, reagardless of what speed the ultimate definition of “broadband” becomes, *any* speed offered by a providor must have an absolute guarateed minumum attached to it.

  3. As a resident of rural America who currently relies on satellite for “broadband” Internet, I would like another and better choice. Broadband over power lines (BPL) seems to make sense since much of the infrastructure, the power lines, are already in place. Washington could do something to move this along.

  4. Broadband isn’t “essential”, unless being online with super/fast speeds is “essential to you”; but then being online isn’t “essential” either. Frankly, I don’t really want my tax dollars being spent by the govt. to provide non-essential services just because most people want them (which is fine–want whatever you want… you pay for it). One thing I know about govt. spending: they’ll screw it up (as in, screw the public) by basing all of the important decisions on what the lobbyist who paid the most wants them to do, forgetting entirely that We The People are the ones who actually pay the most (and put them there in the first place to serve *US*).

  5. There are only ways to go wireless will get you there quicker in the rural areas but that wound take fiber to the towers and an upgrade in the equipment to handle the load. Note what iPhone did to AT&T system. You would have to come up with a price structure the semi rural and rural can afford.
    The second is fiber for real speed in the semi rural and rural farm areas but the cost to completely replace the copper phone network in these areas is cost prohibitive.both to the installing company and to many of the subscribers. They can barely afford a $20 phone bill but two customers away could afford a $200 everything bill. These customers may be far enough away they can’t see each other’s house.

    What you do in a big city will only work in other areas if somebody with very deep pockets comes up with the money. Most small towns have areas that do not have good broadband because of the cost of upgrades. In many cases the slow broadband equipment has not returned a profit and now that needs to be replaced with a new faster system.

    Most discussions never talk about cost and speed and affordability at the same time.

  6. Why is “Washington” supposed to “give us” “the broadband we want” ?

    Oh yeah, that’s what “we want”. A 300 baud modem delivered by the Post Office.

    Please, Washington, KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF BROADBAND.

    • Hmm. WE the People own the spectrum. Why shouldn’t WE the People have some say in how it is used? Why shouldn’t WE the People put our tax dollars to a useful purpose this time, instead of handing it over to Blackwater or Haliburton again? Or, worse, to the Wall Street Bandits? At least if we build out a fiber network to rival other nations, we’ll have something to show for our investment in terms of real from the bottom up economic growth, community service, emergency service, etc.

  7. the question i have (and my public Google recommendation) is what about block D? to my knowledge, the block is still available and covers the entire continent, and as we get closer to engineering 100mbps wireless speeds why won’t we use this available space? and the sad part is that it seems that companies like Microsoft, Intel, and Google are doing a better job in figuring out the rural problem with their white space solutions than our own government can…i just want it to rain internet the continent over.

    • Jesse Kopelman

      FCC can’t just do something with D Block. Any authorization for actions relating to spectrum disposition actually have to come from Congress. The only thing Congress authorized the FCC to do with the D Block is auction it. If they wanted to do something different, like award it via beauty contest or make it unlicensed, they would need a new authorization from Congress.

      • thanks for the reply, so if nationwide broadband is as important as i and many others believe it is, then maybe we should be looking in another direction as block D is still a huge valuable asset that should not go to waste!?!?!?

  8. Bill Dollar

    @ John – I think calling Stacey a “parrot” is unfair. I find her reporting to be very balanced, and her opinion to be mostly reasoned and well informed, if “wrong” on occasion. In this particular instance, I just think she made some minor reporting errors, which happens often in this form of instant blog journalism.

  9. Bill Dollar


    Minor point, but at the open meeting, 3 items to be considered are 1) NOI on wireless market innovation; 2) NOI on next wireless market competition report, and; 3) NOI on truth in billing.

    The request for defining broadband is separate, and will not be taken up at the open meeting.

    Also, this is wrong too: “[Levin] expressed frustration at the quality of suggestions he was getting from consumers with regard to ways to improve broadband service. He said they exhibited “sloppiness” and a “lack of seriousness and purpose.””

    Levin was talking about comments in the FCC Broadband Plan NOI, from all stakeholders, especially the industry (not consumers). He said this at a presentation where he specifically put up a slide from Verizon, and showed how they had tried to hide the ball on investment data. It is wrong to characterize these “seriousness and purpose” comments as being directed to consumers.

  10. I don’t see the point in spending money providing so-called broadband to rural areas since most of the people living there couldn’t care less about it. But the dirty little secret which I’ve heard no one speak about is that what really controls your connection speed to any given server is the throttling software needed to meter bandwidth that the website owner has to pay for. Server/host bandwidth is not infinite and not cheap. Until you change that dynamic, all the parallel fiber in the world won’t make any difference. I’ve compared download speeds on super high speed networks and they’re no better than my 6mb/sec cable connection. Most people typically get around 200 to 300 kbytes/sec for your average website with higher speeds typically provided by CDNs (content delivery networks) for video and large files for software updates and such. That’s not free.

    • This is a minor concern. You seem to assume that an Internet connection supports a single applications. Increasingly, connections support many applications simultaneously. Even if every server a user connects to is throttled below the connection speed (a rather dubious assumption in my experience – especially for anyone use Qwest DSL, for instance), the overall effect of a faster connection will still be signficant.

      Further, the idea that “most of the people” living in rural areas don’t want broadband is incorrect.

    • Donivan

      What?!?!? You are full of crap if you think “we” in the stix don’t want broadband. I have been fighting for it for 6 freakin years now and so has my community but no one cares. Some people say what about satellite? I’ve had it for 4 years and it is worse than dialup, more so in the last year or so. There satellite companys don’t care about their customers and provide poor serivce. It is to the point that I hope if korea launches a nuke it hits hughesnet’s main office.

  11. James Hancock

    The obvious question is why the government has anything to do with it at all?

    Broadband isn’t a right. Take the government out of it, get rid of all of the rules and regulations so that others can compete and leave it to the free market. They’ll take care of it pretty darn quickly and prices will be relative to service and distance and population density as it should be.

    If you want to live in the stix, you’re going to pay me more money. The government shouldn’t be paying companies to roll it out to you cheaply. That’s not the government’s job.

    • Come on, James. Isn’t it the government’s job to insulate us from all of our bad decisions?

      They should supply us with cheap health care, no matter how much we eat, drink and smoke, and no matter how little we exercise. When we run our businesses into the ground they give us more money.

      And they should pay us to live anywhere we want to, rebuilding our flood plain homes again and again, and making sure that urban folks subsidize our telecoms and mail, even to the point of air dropping our letters and packages for no extra charge.

      Of course, if our government ever runs a budget deficit they will certainly have the good sense to reevaluate these utopian policies…

    • Ugh. Why did the government get involved with telephone and electricity and roads? A better question is, are we better off as the government ensured that everyone (nearly) has electricity and phone service and that roads spurred the creation of markets in rural areas that were previously isolated? YES! These investments are the base of all the economic growth we had in the last century (or 70% of that last century).

      Broadband will have similar effects in the coming decades… that is assuming that more than 1% of the US has access to fast, affordable networks. We are all underserved when compared to our international peers. Governments across the world have spurred fiber networks that are the new essential infrastructure. We fall farther behind at our peril.

    • So which Utopian planet are you referring to? Because it sure isn’t the one the rest of us have to live on. Where is this fast-paced, highly-competitive free market you speak of? I don’t see one. You also seem to assume that everyone in the “stix” (great band btw) can get access to broadband Internet if they just pay enough. The reality is that if an area isn’t deemed profitable enough, this very free market you speak of will leave them high and dry with NO access.

      These Utopian, purely free-market arguments just don’t hold up in the real world.