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.

3 Responses

  1. A parallel approach is mobilizing communities to find their needs and design solutions. This should be tied in with national policy. I wrote that idea up here:

    Local forums to implement high-speed networks (broadband): proposal open for votes
    http://radar.oreilly.com/2009/05/local-forums-to-implement-high.html

    • I definitely support any action that brings the needs of communities to the forefront, and the more aggressively communities can rally people around a plan such as Andy’s, the better service they should get.

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