How Do We Fix Crappy U.S. Broadband?

According to a recent study, broadband access in the U.S. has dropped to 19th place worldwide. The recent passage of the stimulus bill will provide about $7 billion to improve it. But why is U.S. broadband so crappy in the first place? And can government intervention improve it?

For a little insight, I sat down with Emily Green, CEO of the Yankee Group, a Boston-based consultancy that specializes in connectivity. They advise network providers, manufacturers, media companies and financial services companies, and also specializes in helping those companies deal with public regulations.

The Yankee Group recently wrote an open letter to President Obama about the need for an "anywhere" network. In it, it argues that a Federally-motivated expansion of wired and wireless communications is one of the most vital components of economic recovery, community service, and improved health care and education.

Is broadband access in the U.S. really that bad?

There was a note in The New York Times the other day that sent me around the bend. There was a convocation of broadband industry folks a few days ago, and they came out and said that if you looked at the right metrics, the U.S. is actually number one in broadband access. Anyone who says that is engaging with delusional metrics. For a country that's as advanced as we are, and has provided so much leadership in the commercialization of the Internet, our deployment of broadband technology is pathetic and embarrassing.

What's the problem?

We're not short on ideas. We're short on people's understanding of the importance of a comprehensive, seamless, high-capacity digital network. A lot of articles in the media discuss the stimlulus' "shovel-ready" projects. But we need a network that is digital-worker ready. If we had that, we could re-shore some of the jobs that are leaving the country. We are moving to a service-based economy, away from a manufacturing economy. The projects in the stimulus that will have the longest impact won't be the bridges and roads.

But to get that kind of economy, do we need the government to work with private companies? Many ISPs won't even divulge maps of their coverage to regulators.

There is great economic benefit for the whole country if we have an expansive, higher capacity network. But for these companies, holding information close to the chest is genetic; it's an attitude born of long habit. It's as if they're saying, 'I'm not sure what will create my competitive advantage, but information is power—so I'll withhold as much as possible.' It's not a very Google-era perspective.

Do they have good reason to protect that information?

This information is too critical to stay private. Here's an exact analogy: Just because many highways in the U.S. are managed by independent companies, that doesn't mean we let them withhold information about where those roads go, or which facilities are at each stop. We're at the stage now where information highways are just as important as our physical highways.

In your letter, you say we need a "public safety broadband network" for police and fire squads. Do we really need to get the Federal government involved in things like this? Can't states and municipalities hash this out, whenever the market can't?

The Federal government should be setting examples and pioneering things. What we really need is coherence, so that these networks—police, fire, emergency services—can talk to each other. The Federal government needs to come in and say, 'there's too much risk involved here. We need to provide leadership.' After they establish the model, the states and cities can refine it.

But the government can't even handle the transition from antenna TV to digital.

Delaying the DTV transition was a mistake. Any change of this magnitude is never going to go smoothly. The value of returning that white space to the American people is huge; that space could be one of the vehicles for improving broadband access across the country, and I think that's a lot more important than television programming. Broadband access is correlated to economic benefit in a way that TV is not.

Some studies have shown that rural residents without broadband express very little interest in getting high-speed Internet.

I understand there are people who don't think they need it. There are also people that think they don't need to exercise or drink milk. We shouldn't let that make us self-satisfied about where we are in terms of connectivity.

Curricula in schools are devised by people given the authority to decide what's best for our children. We should be mandating connectivity and skills development too. Luckily, the stimulus package has funding for access points in communities and educational programs for broadband usage.

You say in your letter that the government should create some "initial applications" for the new white space being vacated by the broadcast TV stations, so serve as examples to private companies. Can't we just let the market do its work? Won't Microsoft and Google build on that white space anyway?

The government needs to show some real leadership by moving its activities—health, education—onto an anywhere network. The reason networks are so efficient is that they diminish the relevance of your physical location; for example, you don't have to drive down to the DMV if you can do everything online. If the government can challenge itself to move its governance online, that commitment will help our whole economy move onto the network.

The letter to President Obama talks about building public housing with fiber optic connectivity. How do we mandate things like this and make sure that we're using the right technology? Is fiber, for example, definitely the best?

It's not the only vehicle—you can get broadband over cable, telephone, power lines—but it's the best technology we have today. When the government builds public housing, there are requirements for things like green space. Why shouldn't there be requirements for letting inhabitants participate in an anywhere network? This funding should be technology agnostic, but there are technologies out there today that we should be using. 

Like femtocells?

Femtocells dramatically increase connectivity in an economical way; it's an extremely exciting technology that could expand the reach of wireless technology. One of the biggest costs for network providers is mounting equipment around a city. These operators are very excited about people using femtocells, but they're still trying to figure out how the business model works. They'll be great for schools and hospitals.

Does Obama understand the need for an "anywhere" network?

He certainly was great during the campaign about promulgating broadband for all, but less than 1% of the stimulus package is for broadband. Maybe we don't know how to use any more than 1% responsibly at this point. But over the next eight years, we need to tip the balance in favor of service economy investment.

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