Why Washington Won't Give Consumers the Broadband They Want

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 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.

This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com.

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