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Why it’s time for the U.S. to get serious about its broadband problem

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A recent international ranking placing the United States 35th in bandwidth has generated another round of commentary about how our broadband offerings compare to others. Unmentioned was that a year earlier, the then FCC Chairman gave a speech advocating the need for much faster, gigabit broadband networks throughout the United States.

Its absence might be seen as surprising; after all, a speech on point by the leading regulator generally plays a central role in framing the debate. It’s not surprising, however, in light of it being the most amateurish speech ever given by an FCC Chair, one symptomatic of the policy problem.

Don’t get me wrong; I was delighted that several years after the 2010 National Broadband Plan identified the need for a critical mass of communities with the world-leading bandwidth, the Chairman finally used his bully pulpit to agree. Further, I have spent the lion’s share of my time since I finished the Plan volunteering with efforts designed to achieve that goal. Nonetheless, I saw the speech as amateurish, as that term is used in the military adage about where to focus one’s attention: “amateurs talk tactics; professionals study logistics.” In the case of policy, the guide should be, “amateurs talk strategy, rank amateurs talk aspirations, and professionals study execution.”

The speech was full of aspirations but devoid of any analysis of why we don’t already have such networks throughout the U.S. It’s not a difficult analysis. We who wrote the Plan reviewed a record demonstrating that current market forces were unlikely to produce gigabit networks within any reasonable future. That analysis, and our subsequent discussions with various parties, helped pave the way for the Google Fiber project, which itself has spawned other gigabit projects.

As the Chairman ignored that analysis, it is not surprising that the strategy and tactics he proposed bordered on the absurd. He issued a “challenge” that there be a gigabit network in every state and proposed the FCC establish a best practices clearinghouse. This would make sense, I suppose, if the barrier to gigabit networks were that up until that moment the Chairman had neglected to request them — dubious — or that such a clearinghouse was not already available; also doubtful as several organizations already provided them.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the impact of the speech in the real world was zilch. Yes, it garnered tremendous press attention in the subsequent news cycle and succeeded in associating the Chair with faster networks. It has not, however, lead to a single network being planned or deployed, nor a single change in policy that would improve the environment for gigabit deployments. Actually, as a subsequent hearing demonstrated, the Chairman’s own policies made the deployment environment more difficult.

Despite that, our country has made significant progress towards deploying gigabit networks, but that is entirely due to professionals—largely city officials who understand both the need and the way to adjust policy levers to improve the economics of deployment and engineers in companies finding more efficient deployment methods. These types are not big on speeches but they are willing to dig into the arcane problems of access to rights of way, pole attachments, construction permitting and other factors that affect incentives to upgrade.

A focus on execution does not guarantee success. Some deployments are succeeding; others are not. After all, when it comes to gigabit networks, all efforts are in beta. We are at the beginning of an upgrade cycle in which there are no tried and true turnkey solutions. At this stage, risk is higher. But someone has to undertake that risk for progress to follow. The broadband bonanza we enjoy today owes a great debt to efforts such as Time Warner’s Qube, Apple’s Newton, and @Home; all failed as a business matter but each demonstrates that a failed project can still advance the mission.

The mere expression of aspiration, however, does not. During and since my time working on the United States Broadband Plan, I have studied and been consulted on similar efforts around the world. A common lesson is execution matters more than aspiration. A commitment to periodic evaluation and course correction when obstacles arise can overcome inadequate aspiration. But the greatest aspiration will fail if execution is deficient.

In light of this, the debate over today’s international rankings in misguided. A single metric is likely misleading. More important, given the long timetable of network deployments, what is true today reflects decisions of years past. The right debate is what should we be doing today to position ourselves to lead in the decade to come and that debate must evolve over time, as markets and technology change.

The prospect of gigabit networks is something to wish for, particularly in light of the court decision throwing out the FCC’s network neutrality order. In a world of abundant bandwidth, concerns about allocating scarce bandwidth in an anti-competitive way diminish. If, however, we want to lead in the next generation of the internet, as we did in its first, we need leadership that models itself on generals who focus on supply chains, rather than talking heads who focus on sound bites. A strategy premised on “build it and they will come” is questionable but if our national policy is premised on “ask and they will build it” there is no question that our country will struggle to lead in the bandwidth delivered economy of the 21st century.

Blair Levin is the Executive Director of Gig.U, a group of research university communities seeking to accelerate next generation networks in their communities to support economic and educational development. He previously served as Executive Director of the National Broadband Plan effort and as FCC Chief of Staff from 1993-1997.

12 Responses to “Why it’s time for the U.S. to get serious about its broadband problem”

  1. Richard Bennett

    Cable is a 5 gigabit/second network today, counting TV program streaming, Wi-Fi hits a gig with 802.11ac, and G.Fast will raise DSL to a gig.

    We don’t need to build gigabit networks, we already have them. What’s really needed is an application that has any clue about what to do with that much bandwidth.

    We also need to obsess a lot less about bandwidth and a lot more about latency, resilience, and security. It’s easy to latch on to bandwidth, but it’s largely meaningless above 20 Mbps.

  2. Agree strongly on the Open Access comment!

    And yet in my observation people seem to have great difficulty understanding that enabling options increases opportunities no matter who you are or what type of entity you are.

    Even those who would benefit from open access (a muni, for example, that could then ride on open access infrastructure to deliver its own services) often want to turn around the block the very thing that make their own use possible. As as been said many times before, we love competition until it compete with us!

    I think the real question is this: Can the US overcome its culture of “I have mine” and address the broader needs? After all, we have the technology and we know how to solve “the problem” as the headline says — but it never is a technology or knowledge question, is it?

  3. HÃ¥kan Franzen

    I am from Sweden and where I live I can order a optic fiber connection for a fixed price of $1760 the city network cover 85% of the area.

    After that I can get a service from around 10 providers and a 100/10mbit connection is around $34 a month and a 1000/100 Mbit is around $145 a month if you really want high speed!

    Why have the city focus on Fiber?! It’s simple… Fiber is the digital highway for future business.
    And it’s a future proof infrastructure that very cheap to build and maintain compared to other infrastructures.

    We got 4G for some time now and it’s just a compliment to fiber when your away from your home or office, it’s too slow for streaming TV and lots of users.

    IF USA doesn’t focus on fiber today it will be a IT-developing country compared to EU and ASIA!

    Greetings from Sweden!

  4. Michael Elling

    It appears that even mighty Google, which brings tremendous WAN-side scale to its fiber projects, significant financial resources, and accommodating local govt policies will fail. While I applaud their smart marketing approach and pricing model which reflects marginal cost ex ante, until they change their tactics they will fail.

    Here’s a recipe for success (which other gigabit models should follow):
    1) open access
    2) backhaul of cellular
    3) backhaul of distributed wifi offload
    4) serve commercial and SMB market
    5) develop high capacity managed service telework, tele-education, and telemedicine solutions so that the core procures and subsidizes edge access

    Even their fiberhood model in a semi-competitive market won’t work.

    Gig.U networks should follow the same approach.

    But what is really needed is what didn’t happen in TA96, namely open access applied uniformly in layers 1 and 2 for any service provider granted a license for a public right of way or frequency. After all they are “public goods” and the authority to operate over them is still granted by the government which has a duty to its citizens for efficient and effective use of those properties.

  5. I feel that they will try to milk as much money out of us as they can. Where I live I have three choices for internet. One cost me $50 bucks a month for 5gigs data. (Cell provided) $30 bucks for DSL at 3Mbs unlimited(50% up time, one of the worst in the area). Then fiber, that well you have to take phone and internet and its got a slew of other options with it but the basic service would be 5Mbs, unlimited. Not bad but the cost $75 a month(LOCAL calling only and .08 per min long distance.)

    So why in this wonderful time we live in do I get a home phone for $20 a month from ATT unlimited calling? Why do we have DSL that the copper to fiber switch is LESS THEN A 1/4 Mile from me and the up time is 50%? Then there is the private service that provides us with fiber to the home but has plans from the 80s?

    Living in a rural area with three choices i was amazed to have them. But now, I feel like they are trying to rip me off just because we live in a rural area. Wow….

    Sorry for the rant. But I get worked up over a service that could really be cheaper if the companies weren’t so greedy.

    PS the fiber to the home…. $500 install and a 2 year contract for a NON guarantied price!

  6. Making us wait and not being at the top of list just sets up the people to get screwed over by the suppliers again. My own supplier, Time Warne has a 3 teir system if you want more speed. And it is quite costly to up grade. And the longer we wait the more it will cost.

  7. Thank you, Blair, for all you’ve done to advance broadband speeds, access, and adoption in this country: your own actions through Gig.U and other projects speak to the necessary “execution” of ideas that you call for in these times when there are no efforts, public or private, presently attempting to build a truly robust broadband network in this country. The Internet service providers are merely harvesting the fruits of telephone and cable ratepayers to build networks over many decades, boosting retained earning and cash, without investing the Nation’s future. They also spend lobbying money to prevent states and municipalities from leading with fiber networks that can be leveraged by public and private entities to the benefit of all.

    The claims that “no one needs a gig” are ridiculous: build a gig, and uses will come. The Internet was created (in the U.S.!) NOT by status quo thinking: its birth was the result of stretching way out of the box and literally “seeing the future” and reaching for it.
    As you note, it is only the pioneering efforts of Google Fiber and other municipal projects that are willing to tackle the phone/cable duopoly and archaic rules in the public rights of way to streamline access and attachments, thus incenting advanced telecommunications upgrades.

    Only with far greater support of such efforts can the U.S. truly claw its way back to the top of the global list of advanced Internet access to promote business development, jobs creation, and great opportunities for all our citizens and businesses. I agree with you that it is time for the politicians and providers to get out of the way of logistical execution of aspirations, entirely possible, but still lacking focus and general support.

  8. For all your sharp words against those amateurs who only speak to policy aspirations you sure didnt bother to include much in the way of specifics here. Came for the headline, left disappointed.

  9. Shiggity

    Bandwidth has ALWAYS been abundant. It’s pure FUD to think it’s not. The telecoms use *Cartel Economics* to artificially keep a resource scarce that every one wants, similar to drug trades, weapon cartels, and middle east oil. It’s pure extortion.

    Anyone who can go online and read can see that Asia and Europe are getting 100/100 fiber connections (or better) for under 50$ a month. People in North America are paying over 100x this amount for broadband.

  10. Why Gigabit? Honestly?

    When most of us are still dealing with 20Mb…or less…just getting a single multiple, or possibly two would radically improve the state of affairs.

    I get that these kind of capital outlays are once in a generation, so you have to buy in while you can, but I really feel like we are talking about building interstates where just a good 2 lane would suffice.

    In this case, get rid of the copper, improve the backhaul (especially for heavily over subscribed cable), and reduce the complexity to minimize latency and you will have a world class network…and it doesn’t need Gb throughput.

  11. When the system is this corrupted fighting the symptoms rather than the disease is rather futile. So i won’t comment on what should be done and how since first money must be taken out of politics.

    I do have to point out that this argument doesn’t stand -“In a world of abundant bandwidth, concerns about allocating scarce bandwidth in an anti-competitive way diminish.”
    It’s not about the BW, it’s about extorting money. They can have all the BW in the world,they’ll still want more money. Saying things like that erodes your credibility.