When Ed Whitacre, CEO of AT&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 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.
This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com.