National Broadband Strategy Needs A JFK, a Google That Delivers and Competition

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” President John F. Kennedy, 1961.

In July of 1969, the first man walked on the moon and returned safely to the earth. This simple mission statement that galvanized the government, private sector and average citizens to produce awesome results is only 31 words. Where are broadband’s 31 words to move a nation?

This past week I engaged in a lively debate on GigaOm with the National Broadband Plan’s chief architect, Blair Levin. I disagreed with several of his comments in recent interviews I felt wouldn’t be good if adopted into national policy, as well as the Plan’s failure to address broadband competition.

Mr. Levin replied with a column of his own. It’s nice to know that people in D.C.’s circles of influence read my work, but I could see where my messages needed a little clarity as to where he and I both agree and disagree. So I followed up with a rebuttal.

Issues in this dialog are critical as DC tries to facilitate broadband reaching more people. I support the Plan’s core content and recommendation, but see several deficiencies in executing national broadband strategy that threaten the hard work of a lot of great people.

One person following our little debate asked “When will mainstream Americans be able to support a National Broadband Plan when the ‘experts’ are finding it so hard to focus on a common-cause?” What he’s saying is, where are the 31 words (or 90 if you want to be long winded) that paint a clear endpoint and produce a common understanding that in turn unite folks in Congress, private industry, urban and rural counties, academia, etc.?

Broadband needs a JFK to convey a grand but concrete, comprehendible vision that can be summed up succinctly. The Broadband Plan contains many of the necessary ingredients, but a leader has to distill those ingredients, and then champion a mission that appears to exceed our grasp. Mainstream America sees a lot of goals and recommendations in the Plan, but they don’t see a moon landing. They see stops along the way, a few conflicting paths, several possible landing pads.

Creation orientation vs problem-solving orientation

In my first book on broadband strategy, “Fighting the Good Fight for Municipal Wireless,” I tell readers to assemble the various community stakeholders to create an outcome that takes people to some new place that’s much better than where they are at that moment. If you assemble them just to solve a problem, you get a bunch of pissed off people in a room not seeing any further than removing the thorn from their collective side. Politicians often respond by doing something as quickly as possible to stop the complaining and hopefully get a good photo op for the next election. The end result is you likely will never get to the moon, though if you’re lucky you might get a faster airplane.

With the broadband stimulus, we got problem solving. Here’s a bunch of money to fix the problem of a lot of people not having access. In the end, more people will have access who don’t have it now and be much better for it. However, a greater number will not until we take the next whack at the problem via USF reform.

What Google did that’s very different than DC, is ask (not tell you, but ask) what can you create if you had a gigabit network? Bring us your best ideas for taking us to worlds we haven’t even dreamed of yet.

Ponder this. What gets better results, I offer you money to solve your broadband problem, or I offer money to create tomorrow’s broadband world (which, btw, solves your problem along the way)? I’ve spent 25 years writing and reading about communities and corporations that have transformed themselves using technology, and quite often those with a creation-orientation come up with the kick-ass achievements that get greater return on investment.

From outward appearances, Google spent a relatively small amount yet inspired nearly 200,000 people nationwide to write to them within 60 days with feedback and ideas. In hundreds of communities it was all hands on deck – Democrats, Republicans, old, young, rich, poor. Lots of people who may not typically work together. Google, unfortunately, is only going to help one or two communities. But they’ve inspired communities like Baltimore and Greensboro to create their own solutions they’ll find a way to implement with or without Google.

One of the best things the FCC can do to reform USF is make it a community-centric program with a creation orientation. Do a Google, but do it nationwide. Ask communities “what would you create with a gigabit network, how would you do it, who in the private sector would you partner with, how do you ensure financial sustainability? Establish standard criteria and questions so communities provide the same baseline info. Hire application evaluators capable of assessing technical and financial qualifications, yet recognize the value and viability of creative ideas. Give extra points to regional projects that minimize technology silos and business operations overlaps while servicing the region’s many constituencies.

The Broadband Plan advocates that states and local communities be empowered to provide broadband in their areas. So let’s return the money that comes directly from all of us phone customers for the USF back into the communities on a more direct path that leads to a higher return on investments made.

Competition, oh competition, where forth art thou?

The fly in the ointment as far as applying the creation orientation to broadband is competition and the lack thereof. Many of my thoughts are summed up here. But the bottom line is this. There may be several broadband providers in a community, but as far as having providers that can deliver the minimum speeds outlined in the Broadband Plan, 2/3 of the U.S. doesn’t have companies competing to deliver that service.

A dozen companies, if that many, heavily influence our broadband discourse for a nation of 300 million people. A robust competitive market as the Plan calls for (but does not address forcefully enough) is not in their best interest, so they’re going to fight it tooth and nail at every level. Unless and until we can wrestle this issue to the ground, the Plan’s implementation is going to have rough sailing. Mr. Levin and I both agree the Plan is a living document, so we still can find ways to tackle this beast.

2 Responses

  1. From a quick read I foubnd these a great set of articles, and I must say I land on your side. However I am in Australia, and this same debate needs to occur here. Our National B’band Network is commencing to be built, but the powers that be (for us “in Canberra”) have yet to release all the details. So I intend to take time later this week to print these articles all off and read them ‘with due dillegence’!

  2. The early results of Google’s fiber “experiment” are in. They clearly show tremendous pent up demand across the U.S. for fiber bandwidth in the new age of Internet protocol-based telecommunications — demand that is obviously not being met by the legacy incumbent telco and cable providers. If it was, Google’s “experiment” wouldn’t have drawn such a large degree of interest such that it felt compelled to delay selection of the communities it will fiber up until early next year.

    Fred Pilot

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