Mr. President, Put Broadband’s Destiny in Communities’ Hands

Last month I wrote that broadband needs a JFK, meaning it needs a visionary and political champion to articulate a goal for broadband that’s almost as awe-inspiring and mountain-moving as our goal to land on the moon set by JFK in 1961. So I was pretty pleased to hear broadband get a shout out from the podium at President Obama’s SOTU speech.

Within the next five years, we’ll make it possible for businesses to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans. This isn’t just about —  this isn’t about faster Internet or fewer dropped calls. It’s about connecting every part of America to the digital age.

I didn’t have a John Boehner misty-eyed lip-quiver moment, but the moment was a little warm and fuzzy. I got a call from a White House staffer right before Christmas to talk about broadband strategy, I asked them if they’d seen the JFK post, and was happy to hear that a few eyeballs there had checked it out. Sometimes it’s the little wins that keep inspiring us toward the big victories.

Wednesday, of course, everything snaped back to reality with various folks weighing in with their take on things. Some see little change coming from the POTUS broadband goal. Others feel it was great symbolism that delivers much needed emotional uplift. I have mixed feelings, mostly positive.

That broadband was tied to the overall theme of job creation and economic recovery is an absolute win. Two thumbs up! Too many people still belittle broadband and the effort to bring it to underserved communities because critics can’t grasp the significance. Tuesday before the speech I wrote about why we have to really push the economic development aspect and push like we mean it.

A “shadow of doubt”, though, flashed by later via that pesky little word, “wireless.” One of my colleagues says don’t worry about that too much, folks are using broadband and wireless interchangeably since the average person has trouble understanding the difference, particularly in a speech such as this.

However, incumbents have flooded the DC halls of power with so much money and endless propaganda about mobile broadband being the path to all things good, national policymakers may take the President’s words literally. Wireless is the goal. And damn, could we truly be screwed.

In the realm of economic development, wireless is, at best, a stepping stone technology to help some communities in the short run migrate toward the broadband Promise Land. I feel this is particularly true of the “mobile broadband” which is lobbyist-speak for what’s coming from companies such as AT&T and Verizon. Three times over the past five years I’ve surveyed economic development professionals, and fiber is always acknowledged hands down as the best technology to make current businesses more productive and competitive, and to attract new businesses. 2010’s survey was typical.

Wireless has a role to play in economic development, but only 37% of the latest survey respondents believe it directly impacts new business attraction to a community whereas 55% believe that fiber networks directly impact this outcome. 52% of respondents believe the technology can help harness home-based businesses into a strong economic development force, and 43% feel broadband can be used to draw low income individuals into entrepreneurial ventures.

However, over 55% believe speeds of 100 Mbps or more are needed to reach these and other key economic development goals, and within three years, not 10 as the National Broadband Plan advocates. As many as 34% say a gigabit network is needed for some of the key economic outcomes communities want. And people, wireless ain’t gonna get us there. It’s like expecting a railroad train to fly you to Paris. Verizon is crowing about LTE at 10 Mbps as if this were the Holy Grail. Please. You’d do better for short-range wireless solutions with fixed wireless that delivers 20 Mbps – 30 Mbps for indoor computing, and a hefty WiFi network for outdoor coverage.

Ask communities what they can do for broadband

What’s needed from D.C. is pretty simple. Besides the SOTU, President Obama pointed us in the right direction at the ceremony last week marking the 50th anniversary of JFK’s inauguration. “We as a people can do big things, reach great heights, rise to any challenge…so long as we are willing to take America’s destiny into our own hands.”

Mr. President, communities are willing to take broadband’s destiny into their own hands. Just ask them “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 the network’s financial sustainability? Establish standard criteria and questions so communities have uniform effective information gathering, business planning procedures to follow, but they can still develop technology solutions that are best suited and most effective for their specific needs.

Then return the billions of dollars collected from all Americans every year via our phone bills for the Universal Service Fund, and direct this money on a straightforward path to our communities and in a way that empowers them to do big things with broadband. If we’re going to dream big dreams and return America to greatness, we have to champion bold – and appropriate – solutions.

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