Nat’l Broadband Plan – Too much, Too Little? Just Right?

Last week someone asked me if I thought, based on what I had seen so far of the FCC’s national broadband plan, the plan is too ambitious, or not ambitious enough.  Oh boy, that’s a nice open-ended one you can take in a dozen directions. But I’ll try to put a narrow point on this.

I believe the plan is too ambitious for many inside Washington to fully embrace in terms of executing legislation and making funds available. The average lawmaker, particularly with elections coming up this year, could care less about broadband. These are the ones most susceptible to lobbyists’ attempts to neuter the plan, which make no mistake, they are in full Destruct mode. The telecom and cable industry will mine the lofty rhetoric while trying to kill anything they feel threatens profits.

On the other hand, the plan is not ambitious enough for some when you consider one glaring vulnerability. In some people’s mind, they feel it does not grab by the throat the main source of our many problems with broadband – the lack of competition and the ease with which the incumbents can kill competition. As I read the executive summary, I worry that what steps are in the plan to tackle the competition issue may not survive the long knives of lobbyists and their industry-friendly Congressional allies.

The battle to boost competition

There is a fight to be had by the forces of true reform to shape how Congress and the FCC implement and modify this plan to address competition. For example, it’s fine to make more spectrum available, but it’s useless if incumbents can bid so high they shut out smaller local wireless companies that may care more about the needs of the community, and then never use the spectrum they buy. Or they use it to deliver over-priced under-performing services.

One thing I noticed in the Executive Summary is a clarification of the Congressional mandate to allow state and local governments to provide broadband to their communities. This is HUGE if Congress follows through. We’re starting to see anti-competitive behavior kick in again in several state legislatures as incumbents try to prevent communities from pursuing broadband in areas where there is no service, or the service is poor.

Time and again in places such as Wilson, NC, Monticello, MN, once local government acts, you start seeing price breaks and buildouts that weren’t happening before. Or, as in the case of places such as Pulaski, TN, communities building their own broadband networks are transformed but they can’t duplicate their success in nearby communities because of anti-competitive laws incumbents have forced onto the books. It’s way past time for Congress to step in and shield local communities from the wretched incumbent tactics to abort the will of the people.

Lies, damned lies and inaccurate statistics

Another key area it appears the FCC will tackle is collecting reliable broadband usage data. If they’re going to do this, the FCC has to figure out a way to supplement data coming from the 15 or so states where Connected Nation (an organization that is little more than a PR front for the incumbents) is leading their broadband mapping efforts, or from states where they don’t have a good handle on how to effectively shake loose the data they need. Both challenges are tied directly to incumbents’ influence on what data they will release to the public.

The FCC needs to look to independent tools for collecting data, such as their speed test site that’ aggregating the data individuals create when taking the test, or ID Insight’s national database of broadband usage that also relies on data captured directly from consumers and businesses. [ID Insight is a business partner of Successful.com]

Reliable data on broadband usage is an element vital to the success of the plan, but it’s an activity that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. I know I’ve made this point for over a year now, but how reliable is the data Connected Nation collects going to be for making key decisions to execute any meaningful broadband plan? Not very. Market intelligence data from biased and/or uncooperative sources will maintain a blindspot that endangers the plan’s success.

The national plan demands local solutions

Ultimately the FCC’s plan has to reflect the old Berkeley 70’s rallying call – think globally, act locally.

USF reform will pretty much be pointless if most of the money being allocated to broadband only goes to big carriers. The FCC needs to do what Google did, which is go directly to communities to have them identify real needs from actual potential users, and then allocate money to providers who present proposals to specifically meet those needs. Look at the incredible depth of interest and enthusiasm across the county from cities of all sizes that want the chance to get Google gigabit broadband.

No free broadband lunch! Make providers compete for that money, and allow communities to decide the winners. That’s a free market system that works.

Same with providing subsidies via what will be the new, improved Lifeline program for low income people to get broadband. Don’t just pass that money through to incumbents that are charging high rates for low-quality service. What problem does this solve?

Set guidelines, or better still, have communities set guidelines for what kind of services their constituents need to pull them out of the economic hole they’re in, and demand competitive bids for those wishing to service constituents receiving subsidies as well as penalties with teeth if providers don’t deliver.

This is an ambitious plan. But to be an effective national plan, Washington must respond to the fact that local communities are where implementation takes place. They must be the government’s lead partners, the same as Google has tried to make communities their partners. Communities need to be able to adapt and perform to make critical elements of the plan fit their unique needs.

The private sector is important, but the private sector is more than the lobbyists who slime all over D.C. Every community has a private sector, comprised heavily of small businesses, for which broadband’s impact is of greater significance to the community’s economic well-being than incumbents’ narrow interests. More importantly, the private sector is there to meet our needs, we’re not here to serve them. Many in Washington often forget this.

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