After Going to Washington, Now What?

Well, that was an experience. Presenting on a panel before the FCC (click on “Recorded Panels”). Commissioner Clyburn showed up, a few media folks, DC insiders and other heavyweights on the panel. I was particularly happy not to have had a brain-to-tongue  malfunction. 

Heady stuff, this mixing and mingling in the corridors of power. But after the mics go dead, the Internet video feeds end, and the media files their stories, it’s good to assess the real value that come, or should come, from these exercises. This broadband stuff is deadly serious, and these folks at the FCC have an incredibly complex task before them.

Let’s talk about the upside of this workshop series. Our national broadband policy could put us on track to transform millions of lives and businesses in hundreds of communities. Or it could be great mental gymnastics that many look back on one day and wistfully ponder what could have been. I lean toward the former with a couple of cautions.

As Washington matters go with regard to setting telecom policy, this series of workshops appears to be a rather different beast. In the past, the Armani Suits Brigade (lobbyists) descend upon Congressional and agency’s policy makers to conduct backroom meetings and create directives that benefit the few more than the many. Though the workshops created some grumbling early on about being weighted heavily toward technologists, the panel I was on and the ones following have become more representative of the constituencies that broadband – and the lack thereof  – impacts the most.  

This is great because it’s an open forum, first off. Anyone can show up in person and on line to observe, ask questions and get answers. Granted, I’m a little biased, but the panelists were both knowledgeable about, and empathetic towards, those needing broadband, plus we offered good, practical and doable solutions to issues such as getting people to adopt broadband.

Here are two things that will elevate these workshops from being good public policy stepping stones to becoming great cornerstones of an effective national strategy that pulls the country from its sad broadband standing in the world.

First, The workshops need a big dose of participation by the people who actually own the problem, who feel the pain. One of my brothers, who’s a chaplain for athletes, says “unless you’re the one bleeding, you don’t really feel the pain.” If you’re going to do the type of needs analysis required to make the most effective technology plan, you have to bring the actual end users or potential end users who are feeling the lack-of-broadband pain into the process.

Those people sitting in the room listening to panelists probably weren’t low-income urban dwellers, rural mid-Westerners or small-town southerners fed up with the lack of broadband. The people dialing in to watch these workshops likely weren’t from un-served communities or those who we want to reach who have no interest in broadband.  

One of us panelists might have had what the audience felt were the most brilliant ideas for marketing campaigns to increase broadband adoption. Another panelist observed that smartphones are very popular in low-income communities. But a half dozen people sitting on a panel who live the life we want to improve might have told us we don’t know a good idea from a hole in the ground. They might also tell us why smartphones are popular so we don’t create some assumption-based strategy that hurts rather than helps this trend.   
The value of the workshops to date will be doubled or tripled if the FCC brings the people with the pain into the needs analysis process. But you have to go to them. As I said last week in my FierceBroadband column, go into formerly un- and underserved rural and urban areas that now have effective community-driven broadband networks. See firsthand what technologies they’re using, how these technologies were selected, what were the challenges to implementing the technology, what are the challenges to keeping everything operational and current.

Then go into the hood, the backwater, the outpost where broadband is not. Walk the streets and the country roads to truly understand what economic development agencies are talking about when they say broadband can improve businesses. Let community leaders tell you the struggles of dealing with recalcitrant incumbents and recalcitrant constituents.

Before I forget, let me get to the other caution I have. Whether these stepping stones (workshops) become cornerstones leading to meaningful and effective broadband strategy depends heavily on keeping them from being co-opted by the typical DC lobbyist machine. Unlike those who have the broadband pain, and the many groups working in the trenches to help remove that pain, those protecting big business interests roost in D.C. to tilt the rules in the favor of incumbents.

At some key points in the development of effective national broadband, the best interests of the those who need better broadband will not align with incumbents’ perceptions of their best interests. Compromise will be difficult without protecting our pitiful status quo. At those junctures, will the needs of the many carry more weight than the needs of the Armani Suits Brigade?

In the meantime, let’s keep moving this ball forward.

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Mr. Settles Goes to Washington

Today I get to sit on a panel for one of those workshops the FCC is conducting to help define national broadband strategy. It’s nice to be invited, get to see the wheels of government turn up close and personal. I was inspired to write my thoughts on these workshops yesterday. Let’s see how I feel tomorrow. 

But for today, I hope to make some key points about how broadband adoption can help small businesses, my assigned topic for this particular workshop.

To me, how well your broadband network improves and advances your local businesses determines the success of your economic development impact and also your ability to sustain the network you build. Once these businesses have broadband access, they can:

  • open markets nationally and internationally, whether they sell products or services
  • sell a greater array of products and services locally, which further expands sales as well as betters the quality of life of local residents; and   
  • improves overall business operations such as inventory management, marketing communications and advancing employees professional development  

Of course, for any of this to happen the national broadband strategy has to be developed mainly from a heavy emphasis on identifying the needs of small businesses, particularly in a small town or rural community. For example, anyone who is really serious about using broadband as an economic development tool would never set a  definition of broadband as 760 kbs. But alas, we witness the effect of practical business and technology capabilities and practices trumped by politics and lobbyist.

So today’s workshop is going to be a pretty good indicator of what we can expect as the national broadband strategy takes shape. Who’s going to be the winners and losers? What will be the practical results of successful implementation of this strategy? Will there be any real creativity at the table, or the usual taking heads? And ultimately, will this feedback-generating, fact-finding process get out into the underserved areas where the people who have the greatest broadband needs really live? More importantly, will anyone really act in a way that truly benefits these constituents?

Monday Morning To-do List

I know, this is probably a really bad time to talk about the work that comes next in the broadband dash for dollars. But there are a bunch of folks sitting on the sidelines waiting for the Round 2 funding cycle, watching people’s submission trials this week with Round 1, and maybe contemplating just going to the beach instead.

Anyway, the fact remains, there’s still work to be done by everyone involved with this adventure in technology.

1. Everyone who applied, or at least initiated your application upload, be sure to re-read all the details on the next 2 steps of the NOFA journey. You can’t do much about the initial screening except wait to see if you make it. However, there are things you can do to get ready for the second step because the NOFA gives you an idea what to expect.    

2. I cannot emphasize enough that you do whatever you can to gather data about who doesn’t have coverage in your proposed service area. Somewhere along the line, I believe you’re going to need it. Besides, it can’t hurt to have more rather than less data about who needs what.

3. If you don’t already, have a plan B in case you don’t get funding this round. If you plan to go for Round 2 should you not win this round, pay careful attention from item # 5 on. By the time you find out if you have the grant or not, it may be too late to do many of these activities.  

4. Prepare to fight off any incumbent challenges to your proposal. Don’t forget there’s that pesky little NOFA rule that allows service providers who didn’t have the wherewithal to submit a solution of their own to challenge you after all the work you’ve done. I watched very carefully how Philly beat down Verizon’s challenge to that wireless network in 2004, and I created a media and citizen’s lobby campaign to give you a stronger hand in fighting off such a challenge. Get it here.

5. Those of you planning to pursue Round 2 funding, listen up. Go to this list (http://www.successful.com/news/articles.html), pull up and read my columns in Fierce Broadband, TMCnet, Daily Wireless and Public CIO. Many of these address steps you need to start taking months before the application due date. Some people ignored these steps until it was way too late for Round 1. Don’t miss the train this time.  

6. A lot of you need to decide if you’re going to fight back against rules that pretty much put communities’ interest far behind those of incumbents. I mean, letter-writing, e-mailing, foot-stomping, political pressure applying, in-you-face-but-respectful insistence on changes in the rules! Too many people sat back and bitched quietly rather than give full-throated voice to their concerns.

Don’t for a minute think that this doesn’t matter. As much as we were told the rules were set, the rules can’t be changed, they shouldn’t be changed until maybe the next funding round, here comes the incumbents’ $1000-Armani Suit Brigade. They stomped, wrote letters, got in NTIA’s face. And what happened? Concessions to the unchangeable rules that make it harder for meaningful broadband projects to succeed.

As we get past this week of uploading hell with your NOFA applications, ponder what rules you would change if President Obama tapped you on the shoulder and asked you to be in charge of this process.

7. In the spirit of helpful nudging, here’s a list for which there seems to be a consensus of disdain, dismay and disillusionment. Pick one or two items to make it your mission to address in whatever way you think will produce a change. I’ll be adding my own fuel to the effort over the next few weeks.

  • Either the incumbent challenge needs to go away, or NTIA/RUS provide applicants a valid ability to successfully defend their turf
  • Change the definition of broadband from it’s ridiculously low level to one that is based on the identified needs of the communities to be served.
  • Eliminate the “advertised speed” rule that defines an area as being un- or underserved based on who’s advertising what speed. Definitions have to rely on actual speeds received.   
  • Re-write the rules and reporting requirements that are heavily geared to telecom companies, adding requirements that take into account community-owned networks as well as networks built by public-private partnerships.
  • No more anonymous volunteers reviewing grants. Personally, I think using volunteers wasn’t such a great deal given the short time to adequately prep these folks, but at least the bugs may be worked out by Round 2 so the program runs as smoothly as other volunteer peer review panels. But this secret panel crap is for  the birds and no one should have sat quietly for that.

Feel free to add to the list. But let’s commit to spending part of September doing some amount of lobbying for better rules. NTIA has said it’s open to, and encourages, feedback on the rules and expressed a willingness to make changes. Are you going to take advantage of the moment?

The Smart Path to Broadband Mapping

I often address the serious need for a broadband mapping strategy that doesn’t involve Connected Nation. Today I lay out one strategy for getting better maps faster, and for a much more reasonable cost than the alternative. 

Here’s why mapping is critical to underserved communities’ ability to get broadband, and why poor mapping threatens to derail broadband’s promised benefits and waste hundreds of millions of dollars. If you know this already, you can skip to the next section.

A non-techie’s guide to understanding mapping’s importance 

Broadband maps are graphic manifestations of THE most important element in broadband deployment – the needs analysis. The more accurately you determine which individuals, businesses and other organization need broadband, where they need it and what type broadband they need, the more likely it is you spend money wisely and deliver the best possible solution to communities.

Web maps represent the data that your needs analysis gathers. They’re database apps. Like any database, they are vulnerable to the truism “garbage in, garbage out.” Do flawed data collection (e.g. allow incumbents to hide critical data behind NDAs), you get flawed maps. Conversely, do a bang-up job of data collection, your maps rock. What’s equally true is that, if you use bad mapping technology, you get fairly useless maps. 

Bottom line: You’re working long hours and spending tons of money developing proposals for tens of millions of dollars. All of these actual and potential dollars could be lost if maps that suck due to no fault of your own lead to your proposal’s rejection. Those relying on good maps have the odds stacked in your favor.

From the Fed’s side, they’re giving away $4 billion with “fund, no-fund” decisions based heavily on broadband maps. The ratio of good to sucky maps will determine how well this $4 bil gets spent – or not. 

Those of you whose states have not signed a deal with a purveyor of bad maps (or didn’t do a bad job on their own) have a fighting chance to get maps done right. This is important even if you can’t get the ideal mapping data before the Aug 14 deadline for first-round stimulus funding. You may need to defend your proposal from incumbent of NTIA/RUS challenges, and the more data you have on hand, the stronger your defense.

Key components for useful maps  

Drew Clark, president of Broadband Census (a broadband news and mapping services company) believes any broadband map that’s worth its pixels and the price tag has to sufficiently represent SPARC data – Speeds, Prices, Availability, Reliability and Competition.

Speed data is not only how fast is the access, but what technology is delivering those speeds (WiFi, WiMAX, T1, DSL, etc). Besides advertised speeds (a joke in many cases), what are people actually getting at off-peak AND peak community usage times?

Pricing should include who doesn’t use broadband because the price is too high, or too high relative to actual speed delivered. Availability relates to determining down to every individual household or office where people can or can’t get access, but also is all of this data easily available to everyone in the community.

Reliability speaks to the ability for everyone within a coverage area to be able to get and stay online during emergencies, during peak usage or when trees get their leaves back. Intermittent access or frequently dropped connections is not reliable access. What’s more, reliability relates to whether or not the data is updated as changes occur and do those maps change in real time. 

Competition speaks for itself.

What’s the difference between a map that wastes your money and produces near-useless results, and a good map with the right amount of SPARC? Go to this article and scroll down a little bit to see the Connected Nation map for Summit County, OH. It’s devoid of value because it represent so little useful information. The pink represents any kind of coverage from dial up to fiber, none of it verified by an independent source.

The state of Ohio paid $7 million for maps that look like what you see here. Right below this is another map. For a fraction of that cost, Ohio could have received maps that resemble this one created by Strategic Networks Group.

Getting it done – one tactical approach 

This is a simple approach because, well, so often the best solutions are simple ones.

You want to start with a good map of census blocks for your area.  This tool from the Feds should help – http://mappingtool.broadbandusa.gov/DefaultARRA.aspx

Gather data from and about carriers in your proposed service area, keeping in mind you want as much SPARC information as you can pull. This is tedious since the largest carriers such as AT&T, Verizon and Time Warner want to give you as little as possible, while the smaller ones are hard pressed to put enough people and time to the task. 

Center for Communications Management Information (CCMI) collects data on nearly 650 carriers from the giants to local telecom companies via their tariff filings. Starting at $250, you can get a list of the carriers, their middle mile pricing, last mile pricing, listing of individual and business subscriber service packages, carriers’ advertised speeds. Final price depends on how much work they have to do to get what you want. You still have to track down wireless and cable providers, but you save a lot of time and aggravation getting the other data.

You can attempt to bribe or browbeat wireless and fiber providers not included in CCMI’s list for this information, plus try to get more granular data. This takes a lot of time, but you’ll likely find the smaller carriers to be much more cooperative than the big one. The latest clarifications from NTIA are supposed to make it easier to get carrier data. 

This next step compensates for all the data you won’t get from carriers. Conduct surveys of your individual and business constituents. Your objective is simple: find out who doesn’t have broadband, or enough broadband to meet their needs.

Contact a reputable mailing list company with a good track record for providing reliable data, spend several hundred dollars to get a list of addresses and phone numbers for all the residents and businesses in your proposed service area, and survey them. Ask a couple of questions about what services they’re getting, but mainly find out 1) who’s getting intermittent or no service, 2) is the speed that people are getting adequate, 3) is it affordable. For people not getting access, is it the lack of availability, affordability and/or relevance holding them back?  

Put people in the streets, on telephones, online. Snail mail surveys, print them in newspapers, insert them in shopping bags. Either through volunteer broadband activists, paid teenagers, government and service provider staff or all of the above. This data doesn’t have to take months, it can be a couple of weeks if you coordinate a full-court press.

Show who’s dBoss

What makes this tactic practical is a service such as that from RidgeviewTel. Your workforce distributing and gathering surveys or your constituents can, either directly online or by phone, enter this data into the company’s software called dBoss. Ridgeview’s dBoss then immediately records, aggregates and displays this data on a Web-based map that’ viewable within seconds. You can see the entire state or zoom down to someone’s doorstep.

You can layer on top of the CCMI and survey data any additional information on communication assets such as location of dark fiber, vertical assets, WiFi access points, Internet cafes and just about anything else related to broadband. Changes are propagated in real time. The University of Calif., Chico’s Center for Economic Development is doing a major mapping project in N. Calif., and they’re using a similar data-gathering method with in-house software, so this approach has merit. 

When you strip away all the government-speak, the PR hype, the geekazoid terminology, what a process like this gets you is a reasonably straightforward, accurate maps showing where people need broadband. Yes, it is labor intensive in some parts. But for a community of 10,000, you may be looking at $6,000 or $7,000 for get the technology components doing what they need to do, and whatever it costs you to mobilize an army of data collectors.

What you get in the end are maps that truly represent an effective needs analysis exercise, and this data is quickly updated as broadband coverage and broadband need evolves. You get way more useful data to make much better broadband decisions, and spend way less than the millions states have been soaked for to produce marginally useful maps.

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