CHICAGO, November 18, 2009 – The title of Wednesday’s panel at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners sounded militant enough: “Broadband Plan of Attack.” Yet the speakers on hand gave the distinct impression that across public, private and academic sectors, conclusive battle plans remain to be drawn.
Regulators from Washington, telecom providers and researchers agree that the push forward for wider broadband access remains both a certainty and an imperative. Yet not everyone seems to be dancing the same step just yet—a fact reflected in the frank appraisal of Robert Curtis, director of deployment for the national broadband plan at the Federal Communications Commission.
While the FCC is closing gaps in its broadband plan, “There’s a heavy push to get from where we are to where we want to be in the next couple of months. I’d encourage anyone who has any input to get involved now,” said Curtis. “There’s evidence of a significant economic bottleneck, particularly between the second mile and middle mile. And there’s a middle mile gap, particularly in rural areas, where we might have broadband available, but not everyone has access to it.”
Curtis added: “There’s also a last mile gap in the wireless space, where we need a complete spectrum overhaul.” Possible solutions might involve a number of strategies including satellite backhaul, microwave daisy chain towers, more municipal fiber and more effective fiber placement, Curtis said.
All of that talk of gap plugging pleased David Don, senior director of policy at Comcast.
Tooting his sector’s horn, Don said: “The cable industry has invested over $145 billion in the past ten years to deliver high-quality internet, cable and voice to millions of American homes. This investment is what made broadband affordable and available to millions of Americans…. And we’ve done this without government mandates or government funding.”
That’s not to say government has no place in broadband’s future, though Don was eager to argue how much of a leadership role telecoms and cable companies have played.
“About 90 to 92 percent of Americans currently have access to broadband, though not everyone takes advantage of this. These become questions of digital literacy, and equipment subsidies.”
Kathy Grillo, vice president of federal regulatory affairs for Verizon Communications, attempted to put some numbers on the growing face of broadband from the telecom perspective. She estimates that between $20 billion and $350 billion is needed to provide 760 Kilotbit per second (Kbps) to 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) broadband service to underserved and unserved areas—and produce universal access.
“A lot of that is going to take private investment, but there are some areas where private companies are not going to go, and that’s where the FCC can step in,” Grillo said. “The hard question is how do you do it. There are targeted ways to address areas that don’t have broadband today, or have very little service.”
That represents a sticky point for telecom providers because “in a lot of areas where there are no customers, transport is a huge expense for serving not a lot of customers,” said Grillo. “We need a stable and predictable universal service fund, and we need to look at it in terms of policy instead of politics.”
The most informative feedback on broadband’s current state came from Charles Davidson of the Advanced Communication Law Project, New York Law School.
His group prepared a 100-page report that identifies 60 barriers to broadband adoption across key sectors and demographics. “We really wanted this report to be a conversation starter so that stakeholders and legislators can think about best practices and solutions,” Davidson said.
Broadband, for example, could have a major economic impact on health care costs in the years ahead. How much? A broadband-enabled network in health care could save $197 billion over the next 25 years, according to Davidson.
In terms of broadband infrastructure, more spectrum is sorely needed, too. Citing numbers collected by Cisco Systems, Davidson said data traffic will increase 66-fold by 2013. “So spectrum is really important, and a wide swath needs to be made available there.”
The report also takes a look at conventional wisdom in new and refreshing ways. It’s no surprise that only 30 percent of seniors, for example, are online–due either to suspicion or lack of knowledge. But when Davidson’s group interviewed seniors and senior advocacy groups, they made some startling finds.
“A lot of seniors found learning the Internet absolutely life altering. One 73-year-old woman called it her lifeline to the world. It’s providing avenues for seniors to exercise their mental acuity, and to age at home a little bit longer and more independently.”
That said, “education and outreach as a big picture notion doesn’t work. It has to be targeted, one-on-one, or a concentrated campaign by a service provider. It has to show that this content is meaningful to you, and that there are ways broadband can change your life.”