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Broadband Isn't Just the Web — It's Our Future

istock_000006279005smallWhen Ed Whitacre, CEO of AT&T (s T) retired in 2007, a telecom lobbyist commented to me that Whitacre was one of the last die-hard believers in providing telephone service to everyone. This person was concerned that incoming CEO Randall Stephenson would focus less on landlines and more on growing revenue and generating profit, at the expense of rural customers. That’s coming to pass not just at AT&T, but at other telcos as well. And as I watch what’s happening at the FCC with regard to the National Broadband Plan, as well as the kerfuffle over whether or not Google Voice should provide access to rural areas, where it would have to pay high call termination fees, I realize that the FCC is embarking not on a National Broadband Plan, but a National Communications Plan.

And it isn’t just about providing access to the web. It’s about creating an infrastructure to link the country in much the same way that copper wires and phones linked the U.S. during the last century. We may look down on that network now, but millions of Americans still use it and it’s served as the foundation upon which the web as we know it today has been built. Still, thanks to the fragmented nature of the technologies and types of businesses that deliver broadband, that idea of a unified communications infrastructure (as well as the need for it) is fading.

Broadband, from the last mile that connects our homes to the long haul networks that move the traffic around the world, is our voice, our video, our web and our connection to one other. Our shared last mile networks are the party line equivalent of the telephone system for this century, and the FCC needs to help create regulations that take such a reality into account. No, getting broadband to everyone isn’t a profitable proposition for the carriers, but the U.S. has a responsibility to make it happen.

The multitude of technologies available to do so is both a boon and burden. Because the FCC is trying to regulate everything from satellite providers to fiber, standards are being dropped in order to meet the capabilities of the lowest common denominator technology. That perpetrates a digital divide whereby folks in wealthy neighborhoods get fiber to the home (private lines!) while those in rural areas get satellite or WiMAX. If broadband is to become everyone’s lifeline to the world, then we need to make sure that lifeline can handle the demands of today’s (and tomorrow’s) communications, be they voice, texts, Facebook, Skype video or whatever else.

But how far do we take access to those services, rather than the access to the pipe itself?  Lawmakers are investigating Google because its Google Voice service discriminates against rural consumers by not terminating calls in their areas — a form of discrimination a copper-based telephone company is legally prohibited from making. These types of issues are the next legislative battles unless we unify our infrastructure as one nation, under broadband. Such unification would mean it wouldn’t matter if Google’s connecting back to landlines, because farmers in the Midwest would have access to some method of delivering Google’s VoIP service. Figuring out how to unify and deliver such services will only be a problem if we don’t have nationwide access to broadband that’s robust enough to replace our aging technologies.

So as we evaluate the various requests for comments, the FCC’s actions around the National Broadband Plan, as well as its other efforts at regulatory reform, we need to ask ourselves how the patchwork of services, technologies and providers are going to ensure that all Americans can do the IP equivalent of picking up a phone and calling whomever they want using video, voice or social networks.

In a speech before the FTTH conference last month, Verizon (s VZ) CTO Dick Lynch said that one of the hurdles his company has to overcome as it transitions to FiOS is that of its own internal “copper culture.” Doing so means getting the people still immersed in that mindset to see how crucial fiber is to bringing the company into the 21st century. However, given that Verizon is refraining from rolling out FiOS to a whopping 20 percent of its customers, in areas where the company says it’s too costly to deploy fiber, I’m concerned that a key part of the copper culture being lost in the private industry is a willingness to provide a crucial service to everyone.

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19 Responses to “Broadband Isn't Just the Web — It's Our Future”

  1. Dave Keranen

    I had a landline telephone service from Verizon ,called every year for a number of years about a broadband connection . But alas I couldn’t get one so I dropped them and went to a satellite provider – but that turned into a joke too – so I’m still waiting !!

  2. Brett Glass

    Kindly do not libel wireless technology by labeling it — without justification — as a “lowest common denominator technology.” My wireless Internet service provider has the lowest cost per square mile of coverage of any terrestrial broadband technology, and consumers love the service.

    • Stacey Higginbotham

      Brett, I was writing very generally about a range of technologies from satellite to fiber. But you raise a decent point about how one should measure the denominator. Should cost consideration outweigh speed? I’d say yes if the low-cost service can deliver access to key web-based communications services. No, if it cannot.

  3. Stacey, most informed people would agree that a goal of ubiquitous *real* broadband access is an honorable objective for the U.S. I’ve personally supported that belief for more than a decade.

    However, in a nation where the collective citizens — and their elected policymakers — can’t seem to agree that the truly “crucial service” of universal healthcare is a national priority, what’s the likelihood of attaining broadband ubiquity?

    Perhaps it’s time to set more rational objectives, given the apparent sentiment within this country, that use the baseline example of the global broadband market leaders — as a benchmark for incremental progress in the U.S. market.

    As an example, population density is often used an excuse why the U.S. ranks so poorly — relative to the broadband market leaders. So, let’s set the minimal goal that no person in rural America should have inferior service than a similar location in rural Canada. Similarly, let’s set a goal that says no person in urban America should have inferior service than a similar location in urban South Korea or Japan.

    My point: if the citizens (and policymakers) of this country won’t support broadband ubiquity, then perhaps they’ll support broadband parity. By the way, I’m not suggesting that even this compromise will be a slam-dunk. But, I do believe that it could at least be the basis of finding common ground to move forward.

    Hinging U.S. broadband public policy progress on the belief that “moral sensibility” will prevail is, in my humble opinion, pure fantasy.

  4. Chris Dorr

    This is a great post. You were able to do something which I believe is very difficult: combine dry policy wonk kind of analysis with a real strong moral sense wrapped in clear but passionate prose.. Please keep doing this as we need a constant reminder that policy decisions by our government and by the companies they regulate impact our lives in profound ways as individuals and as a society.