Blog Post

It’s about time: U.S. almost gets serious about broadband buildout

After writing about broadband for nearly a decade-and-a-half, it is finally good to see our politicians actually thinking about broadband and connectedness in a thoughtful manner. Almost!

First, the news:

On Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama will sign an order to make the approval process for broadband network buildout on roads and federal property smoother, easier and simpler.

“Building a nationwide broadband network will strengthen our economy and put more Americans back to work,” said President Obama. “By connecting every corner of our country to the digital age, we can help our businesses become more competitive, our students become more informed and our citizens become more engaged.”

Tom Kalil, Deputy Director for Policy, for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Farnam Jahanian, Assistant Director, of National Science Foundation shared these details in a conference call today.

The new order solves the following problems:

  • In order to approve broadband construction, different federal agencies have different processes.
  • The Federal Government owns about 30 percent of the US land, roads and over 10,000 buildings.

The new order will make things simpler by:

  • Ensuring that Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Interior, Transportation and Veteran Affairs & the US Postal Service develop a single process to approve the Internet construction process.
  • The Department of Transportation will make sure that a dig-once policy is in place. So when new roads are being built, the construction teams should included the empty pipes that can house fiber cables instead of having constantly to dig this up. US Representatives Anna Eshoo (Democrat, California) and Henry Waxman (Democrat, California) have been big proponents of the “dig once” policy.

Dig this

The dig-once policy is a smart way to ensure that we can see fiber is deployed quickly across the U.S. It should help spread the fiber to far-flung and greenfield locations.

When I was writing Broadbandits, I would often hear stories that would reinforce the point that the process of building our connected future was decidedly ancient. The buildout of broadband networks was slowed down because of local bureaucracy.

I would also hear tales of towns being angry because network operators would rip the roads too often in order to lay the cable. Things have changed since, but not very much.

Ignite the broadband

In addition, the White House launched a new non-profit effort called U.S. Ignite, that will help push new apps for these next-generation broadband networks. The Ignite effort is in partnership with the Mozilla Foundation.

In the press release, White House notes:

 The White House is also announcing that nearly 100 partners—including more than 25 cities as well as corporate and non-profit entities—will join with more than 60 national research universities to form a new public-private partnership called “US Ignite.”

The National Science Foundation notes:

U.S. Ignite will expand on investments in the NSF-funded Global Environment for Networking Innovation (GENI) project which lays the technical groundwork for this initiative. Using GENI as the thread, U.S. Ignite will stitch together high-speed broadband resources to create a testbed across universities and cities throughout the United States at a national scale. GENI is a fast, programmable “virtual laboratory” that enables university researchers to experiment on so-called future internets.

Good news, bad news

I am a little blasé about the Ignite part of the news. Let me explain, why I feel that way, but before I do that – let me give how context on how I think about broadband. Broadband is of crucial importance to our global economy. Just as railroads and roads were crucial to the Industrial Revolution, broadband connectedness is important for not only the U.S., but for the global economy. And just like critical transport infrastructure of the past, when we think of broadband, we need to look at it from three angles.

  1. Policy
  2. Competition
  3. Usage & applications.

Just as with the road infrastructure, the federal government helped with the economic shifts that shaped modern America, smart policies should be put in place to help encourage the proliferation of broadband and connectivity. When it comes to policy, decisions such as dig-once to make it easy to lay fiber are precisely what the government should be involved in.

However, when it comes to competition, the current and previous governments’ track record is deplorable. The situation today is that we live in a  bipolar world of cable and phone companies. Both parties have a vested interest in letting each other thrive and dip deeper and deeper into consumer pockets.

The proposed joint marketing arrangement between Comcast (s cmcsa) and Verizon (s vz) takes away any vestige of competition. If the current government wants to make a meaningful impact on the broadband growth, it should start looking at ways to build competition in the marketplace. That said, I am not holding my breath.

Can Ignite really ignite innovation?

If you look at all the press releases, you don’t see much in the way of specifics of what type of applications that the Ignite effort will help launch. There are academic projects that the NSF is going fund, and while they are intellectually intriguing, I feel that the mass use case for ultrafast broadband is going to come from folks like you and me.

A designer’s desire to see his cat’s video resulted in YouTube. A pimply kid’s desire to build a way to rate fellow Harvard attendees turned into world’s biggest photo-album. (Facebook, in case you, didn’t guess that.) A bike messenger’s desire to build a better messaging tool is now the news channel — aka , Twitter.

The point I am making is that these apps originated from minds of people who are people, and now a public-private partnership. They had a problem, they solved it and Internet helped them distribute their solution to others. Others loved their products and they used them, and in the process created demand for more and more bandwidth.

This is no different than the road infrastructure buildout. The road infrastructure resulted in many different applications — gas stations, motels, McDonalds, for example. Later, those apps morphed into convenience stores, shopping malls and WalMart. None of those “apps” required government intervention. It was a special public-private partnership between the public (who needed the services) and the service providers who wanted to sell those services.

Ignite – I don’t need. What I want is more intelligent policy to help build more fiber, easier Wi-Fi deployments and most importantly – competition – a lot of competition.

Photo Graphic Credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation

22 Responses to “It’s about time: U.S. almost gets serious about broadband buildout”

  1. Justin

    I’m fairly conservative in nature and completely support Obama on this measure. Not only does this allow hundreds if not thousands of people to work for their money instead of counting on handouts, but it puts us on track towards the technology leader of the world again.

  2. Renu Raman

    Obama has a second chance as some writers pointed to lay down the big infrastructure projects. There is a direct correlation to communication infrastrucutre and GDP in the history of civilization and this is one last gasp left. Over-simplified math says – with 60M households (60% of households) given $1500 for broadband (its the last mile problem) – i.e. $100B connects them with >100Mbit links each. No need to mention the benefits of 100+ Mbit links into your home – the use cases, applications are numberous and many to come like Arpa net did. I have always wondered if $100B was spent on last mile over shovel ready digging projects, what would be the state of the economy. Lot more jobs, applications, technologies and use cases could have been derived.

    I Hope this moonshot gets a chance and has the drive to railroad this through.

    Given $1500 tax credit for every household to order a >100Mbit broadband. Let the consumers drive the market.



  3. I feel ya Om; every salient point you made is right on target. It is a sad sad commentary; with all the technical visions and the outcry over the pittance we get from US giant Telcos,who labeled it as “broadband”,there is just no political will or the consensus to make this a reality.

    We was robbed again. US show look to Australia for deploying fiber from shining sea to shining sea. Cheers.

  4. Peter Antypas

    Look at what Australia is doing: The government is laying the fiber and reselling it wholesale. So there is the potential for local competition, but not large scale consolidation.

    • Infostack

      That leaves only one provider with no incentive for redundancy and an innovation bottleneck down the road. Maybe short-term success. Will they have the guts to foster facilities competition in the future? Be interesting to watch.

  5. Just like Lincoln spread the Rail across the country, and Eisenhower built the Interstate, Obama has a unique chance to improve and extend the Broadband network I this country.

  6. Brian C

    I don’t need to bring up much of the Internet came to be from government programs, they start the ball rolling private companies pick up from there. Unfortunately, we’re in a time when competition of SP is not helping the consumer. The SP are taking their time slowly building out their networks where the demand is. This allows places like the Bay Area and NY 20-40Gbps while other parts of the country are at T1 speeds or less. Take that and compare it with the average speed in S Korea and well, one will see the US needs some government kick to get going. A perfect way to boost our economy, dig up the old copper and replace it with fiber.

    • Infostack

      The foundational layers (1-2) of the internet were ironically and unintentionally built on a monopolistic pricing reaction to a competitive WAN in the mid-to-late 1980s. By going to flat rate pricing and expanding LATAs the Bells, enabled commercial ISPs to cost effectively place dial-up modems/routers and “centralize” access. With unlimited dial-up the US jumped ahead in the internet race and never lost the lead. There’s a reason most of the internet giants developed here. This perspective also shows there’s a bit of a fallacy (and irony) in thinking that the internet was always supposed to be “free”. Finally government did its level best in 1996 and 2004, specifically and throughout the 00s generally to kill competition.

  7. chrisconder

    Great Post!
    The same thing needs to happen in every country. The USA is not the only one with this issue. No joined up thinking with the utilities. Incumbents protecting their legacy assets. Rural areas with no connectivity and new innovative start ups denied funding, not helped or supported and often squashed by the power of the larger telco and their marketing budgets.
    The answer can only be competition. If we help rural startups delivering in the ‘hardest to reach’ places with fibre, those networks will be so superior they will harvest urban customers, and no amount of marketing could destroy them, as they will have the futureproof solution, which will become apparent. The only way the big boys can then compete is to up their game and say goodbye to the copper. This is being debated at the moment in the EU, if anyone wants to join in and make their voice heard. Comment from the USA is most welcome. The hashtag is #da12bb.

    • Infostack

      Chris, unfortunately as OM points out and other comments reflect, there is no really new, disruptive player in this group. What we need is policy, trade and capital markets that begin to understand the implication and outcomes for a horizontally as opposed to vertically integrated approach. The former scales technology rapidly at every layer and pricing reflects marginal cost. The latter doesn’t scale and average pricing drives high-volume users off-net and everything spirals towards ever higher pricing. Bandwidth in this country should be 90+% cheaper than it is today.

      • Infostack

        Thanks for the comment. It is weird but there is no talk of competition in Washington at all – yes there is lip service but that’s about all. The competition is what will drive the demand and prices and also open up opportunities for others.

  8. Virtuous

    Comcast, Verizon and AT&T will quietly kill this initiative. What is needed is a federal law that allows local governments to build, own and operate broadband networks. States and the US governments should offer tax breaks for small established providers to build out their networks.

    • Infostack

      There are private approaches that still can work. Need to focus on marginal cost. Nobody is doing that. Download as many whitepapers you can on broadband from FCC, academia, trade and search for marginal cost. You won’t find it referred to!

  9. Everyone seems to always talk about Facebook, What about MySpace? I do believe it was around long before Facebook, even going through the predators problem ad nauseam.

  10. Steve Ardire

    > Ignite – I don’t need. What I want is more intelligent policy to help build more fiber, easier Wi-Fi deployments and most importantly – competition – a lot of competition.

    Bingo !

      • Infostack

        Om, it can. Steve Jobs’ lasting legacy will be that he revived equal access in 2007 after the FCC killed it in 2004.

        Pricing of bandwidth started disconnecting from Moore’s and Metcalfe’s laws about 10 years ago after the farcical Telecom Act and CLEC bust.

        The arbitrage between retail and economic cost per bit is the widest it has been in 30 years. Something’s gotta give.