Igniting a Fire Under US Broadband

Yesterday the White House announced two major developments. First, President Obama today will sign an Executive Order that mandates all the agencies managing Federal properties and roads create a uniform approach for allowing broadband carriers to build networks on and through those assets. This “build once” strategy should save an estimated 90% of the typical network infrastructure buildout cost.

Today also marks the launch of US Ignite, a long-developing project that brings together 100 or so public, private and nonprofit organizations in an effort to pool/integrate resources to streamline gig app development nationwide. It’s a little complex, but the gist of it is: build a bunch of gig network testbeds, unite university and community creativity, supplement it with private vendor contributions and churn out a bunch of apps, some of which are bound to be winners. In the end, broadband gets deployed faster coast to coast.

Both efforts have potential to turn out some pretty cool advancements in the U.S.’ march to nationwide broadband connectivity that yields the technology’s many promised benefits. As with everything involving politics, policy and money, the results can be a mix of the good, the bad and the unexpected. It’s all about execution.

Here’s my preliminary take on these announcements. Later today on my Gigabit Nation radio show, I interview a number of leading players within the US Ignite partnership to give you some additional insights from those intimately involved in the program.

“Build once “infrastructure strategy

There’s a very big upside, a potentially ugly downside.

Anything that gets all of these federal, state and local government agencies to throw conduit into the ground when they’re already tearing up the terrain is a major win! Digging up the concrete is what adds so much to the money and time costs of building a network. Add to that the ending of the duplication of effort that goes on during so many of these public works projects in general, the dollar savings should be intense.

One question, though. Will the government require the organizations that lease the land to build open access networks? Let’s cut to the chase. Broadband in the U.S. sucks in large part because we have little or no competition to the dominant telco or cableco at the local level. If this Executive Order lacks an open access requirement, incumbents can just roll into cheap deals courtesy of the Feds and then freeze out any meaningful competition.  Think it won’t happen? Then you haven’t been paying attention.

In US Ignite, who builds and who owns

In my column about Gigabit Squared launching a $200 million investment fund for broadband, I posed the question, how do communities ensure broadband addresses the public good to the greatest extent possible if they don’t own the network. One person in the article felt you can’t have private-sector ownership without the danger of sacrificing the public good. Blair Levin took exception to this assumption. I promised a full-length column because both he and the person I interviewed have valid points about a definite tension between partners, but the short version is…

A community that owns their network has max control of what is done with the network. However, some private-sector companies can deliver or facilitate a network that fully addresses the public good while still making some profit while doing so. With the US Ignite and the varied cast of public, private or nonprofit companies playing in the sand box, it’s important to sort out the question of where the money is coming from to build the networks, and who “owns” the process of ensuring the public good.

When broadband development is fun and games

Contests offering big bucks to the person or team who comes up with the next gigabit killer app are popular. These are good because it gives folks creating applications a sense that they can win some money to help take the apps to market. I fully support ‘em, but I do think you can get the same or greater impact spending less money.

The Northeast Kingdom (NEK) of Vermont (Caledonia, Essex and Orleans Counties) spent probably less than 10% of what US Ignite partners plan to spend, but in a contest that offered lots of small-dollar prizes to the businesses that created the best uses of the Internet in their respective companies. 35 – 50 businesses created apps that met their needs. Some undoubtedly could be duplicated.

Go for the big-buck, high-profile contest, but spend some of that money for smaller contests that get a lot of creativity bubbling up from the communities. So many peeps want to hit a grand slam when for many market segments the “killer app” will be the one that makes doing the basic job functions more effective or more efficient. There’s gold in the simple apps of life.

Cross pollination is good

In the Fact Sheet that accompanied the telephone media briefing on US Ignite, one of the tactics listed is brilliant. Much effort will be made to leverage all of the various Federal agencies’ broadband grant programs so communities can take advantage of the end products of all these grants. Integration and streamlining are the watchwords.

Everyone involved with US Ignite and the Fed agencies should listen to my Gigabit nation interview with Gary Rawson, the State e-Rate Coordinator for the Mississippi. He goes into detail about how, when you get to the state and county level, end results suffer due to duplication of efforts, contradiction between requirements for networks that are built using different grants, and agency programs that work at cross purposes with local needs. It’s damn near impossible for certain programs to complement each other so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. US Ignite will be national heroes if they find a way to smooth out this problem, but they’ll likely have more success working out the resolutions locally rather from D.C.

6 Responses

  1. Right on Craig! Imagine my surprise when finalists – who had NOTHING to do with broadband – won the KC Gigabit Challenge in January! At least our “Digital City” project is trying to create jobs and build software infrastructure.

    This whole USIgnite effort is entirely about hardware infrastructure and higher educational institutional research. I wonder how long it’;; take folks to realize that the #1 benefit of gigabit networking is the fact that the line won’t go down. A stable Internet is something we can build on top of – but flakey DSL lines and bad QOS is the norm out there – in the real world.

    We need “digital economy ecosystems” which can work across a wide range of connectivity solutions. The open web doesn’t care HOW you get onto the net or how fast – it cares about WHAT you’re doing.

  2. Craig, who chose the staff at US Ignite? And how does USI plan to coordinate with Gig.U and other public/private broadband initiatives, such as US UCAN, etc… to solve the problem that you so bluntly put: “Broadband in the U.S. sucks in large part because we have little or no competition to the dominant telco or cableco at the local level.” Isn’t coordination across these groups almost as important as coordination at the trench level?

  3. I remain a bit concerned that US Ignite will in fact, do just what its mandate suggests, and concentrate on apps with “serious public purpose or benefit.” But an app does not generate effective or political demand by delivering what a group of experts think is “public purpose or benefit.” It generates effective demand by being something potential customers are willing and able to buy, even if all it provides is “mindless entertainment” (Angry Birds, anyone?) or “unnecessary convenience’ (indoor toilets).. Once consumers are demanding the app (and the technology to support it) for such “frivolous” or “unnecessary” purposes, the technology then becomes available for the “serious public purposes” as well. So I hope “the system” has enough slack to allow the development of “frivolous” apps as well as serious ones.
    Rollie Cole PhD,JD
    Founder, Fertile Ground for Startups and Small Firms
    Helping Build Environments for Multiple Startups and Small Firms to Thrive

  4. […] Good insights by Craig Settles on Gigabit networking contests […]

  5. I think there are millions of killer apps, but they won’t make a person go online and become a digital native. The real killer app is a connection that is fit for purpose, and until everyone has one there will always be analogue people. The only way to make sure everyone gets connected is to stop the scarcity model which is keeping the incumbents sweating their copper assets and get some competition into every country, altnets providing abundance. Fat dumb pipes, so we can powershower instead of carting water from a well in a bucket owned by an obsolete telco.

    • We can point to a massive $1 trillion digital application ecosystem that was started by Apple and perpetuated by Google in the mobile space. Importantly this ONLY happened because Steve Jobs resurrected Equal Access in 2007, which the FCC (yes the same government, different administration) killed in 2004. I agree, Chris IT IS ALL ABOUT the infrastructure and the pipes. But they need not be dumb by any means. In fact, scaled layer 1-2 horizontal infrastructure providers can and should be extremely intelligent, fungible, scalable and adaptable to handle rapid technological obsolescence. Everyone, regulators, academics, trade and capitalists need to look at the recent 30 year past (WAN, data, mobile) and draw on that to understand horizontal networks, scaling and marginal cost. It is time to get moore’s and metcalfe’s laws reconnected with broadband pricing. It is time for the latter to reflect marginal cost. Pricing is 20-150x higher than it should be. Drop gigabit pricing and we’ll see the (application) market is there; just as Steve Jobs envisioned the mobile app market. The problem lies with vertically integrated monopolies that do not scale, price to the margin and drive high volume users off-net.

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