Accelerating Broadband Deployment

This week, the White House announced the latest federal actions to lower broadband deployment costs across the Nation. Part of these efforts include the launch of the US Ignite Partnership between Federal agencies along with partners from industry, the non-profit sector, and local communities to accelerate the development of applications that can take advantage of ultra-high-speed, programmable broadband to bring innovative new products and services to the American people.

Executive Order on Accelerating Broadband Infrastructure Deployment
On June 14, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order on Accelerating Broadband Infrastructure Deployment. The Order is rooted in the realization that “broadband access is essential to the Nation's global competitiveness in the 21st century, driving job creation, promoting innovation, and expanding markets for American businesses. Broadband access also affords public safety agencies the opportunity for greater levels of effectiveness and interoperability.” Since too many areas of the Nation lack adequate access to broadband (and here’s two examples: Chappaquiddick Island and Adak Island), the Order is based in the understanding that decisions on access to Federal property and rights of way can be essential to the deployment of both wired and wireless broadband infrastructure. The Federal Government controls nearly 30 percent of all land in the United States, owns thousands of buildings, and provides substantial funding for State and local transportation infrastructure, creating significant opportunities for executive departments and agencies (agencies) to help expand broadband infrastructure.

The Order creates the Broadband Deployment on Federal Property Working Group to ensure a coordinated and consistent approach in implementing agency procedures, requirements, and policies related to access to Federal lands, buildings, and rights of way, federally assisted highways, and tribal lands to advance broadband deployment. Co-chaired by the Administrator of General Services and the Secretary of Homeland Security (Co-Chairs), in consultation with the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and in coordination with the Chief Performance Officer, the Working Group includes representatives from the following agencies all of which have significant ownership of, or responsibility for managing, Federal lands, buildings, and rights of way, federally assisted highways, and tribal lands: the Department of Defense; the Department of the Interior; the Department of Agriculture; the Department of Commerce; the Department of Transportation; the Department of Veterans Affairs; and the United States Postal Service; the Federal Communications Commission; the Council on Environmental Quality; the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation; and the National Security Staff. (The co-chairs may invite other agencies to participate as well.)

Within one year, the Working Group is to report to the Steering Committee on Federal Infrastructure Permitting and Review Process Improvement on the progress that has been made in implementing the Executive Order. The Department of Defense, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the United States Postal Service are to:

  • develop and implement a strategy to facilitate the timely and efficient deployment of broadband facilities on Federal lands, buildings, and rights of way, federally assisted highways, and tribal lands, (deadline: December 10, 2012),
  • provide comprehensive and current information on accessing Federal lands, buildings, and rights of way, federally assisted highways, and tribal lands for the deployment of broadband facilities, and develop strategies to increase the usefulness and accessibility of this information, including ensuring such information is available online and in a format that is compatible with appropriate Government websites (deadline: December 10, 2012),
  • develop and use one or more templates for uniform contract, application, and permit terms to facilitate nongovernment entities' use of Federal property for the deployment of broadband facilities. (The templates shall, where appropriate, allow for access by multiple broadband service providers and public safety entities. To ensure a consistent approach across the Federal Government and different broadband technologies, the templates shall, to the extent practicable and efficient, provide equal access to Federal property for the deployment of wireline and wireless facilities.) (Deadline: June 14, 2013), and
  • revise their procedures, requirements, and policies to include the use of dig once requirements and similar policies to encourage the deployment of broadband infrastructure in conjunction with Federal highway construction, as well as to provide for the reestablishment of any highway assets disturbed by installation (Deadline: June 14, 2013),

In addition, the Department of Transportation shall:

  • review dig once (1) requirements in its existing programs and implement a flexible set of best practices that can accommodate changes in broadband technology and minimize excavations consistent with competitive broadband deployment,
  • work with State and local governments to help them develop and implement best practices on such matters as establishing dig once requirements, effectively using private investment in State ITS infrastructure, determining fair market value for rights of way on federally assisted highways, and reestablishing any highway assets disturbed by installation,
  • review and, if necessary, revise its guidance to State departments of transportation on allowing for-profit or other entities to accommodate or construct, safely and securely maintain, and utilize broadband facilities on State and locally owned rights of way in order to reflect changes in broadband technologies and markets and to promote competitive broadband infrastructure deployment; and
  • create an online platform that States and counties may use to aggregate and make publicly available their rights of way laws and joint occupancy guidelines and agreements.

US Ignite
The White House also announced the launch of US Ignite Partnership to create a national network of communities and campuses with ultra-fast, programmable broadband services, operating at speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second. This network is meant to become a test-bed for designing and deploying next-generation applications to support national priorities areas such as education, healthcare, energy, and advanced manufacturing. US Ignite will challenge students, startups, and industry leaders to create a new generation of applications and services that meet the needs of local communities while creating a broad range of job and investment opportunities.

The US Ignite Partnership is a new, independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a mission to catalyze 60 advanced, next-generation applications capable of operating on giga-bit broadband networks over the next five years in six areas of national priority: education and workforce development, advanced manufacturing, health, transportation, public safety, and clean energy. The Partnership will connect industry leaders from small and large corporations, including startups, with local and state governments, universities, foundations, community institutions and broadband carriers to accelerate the development and testing of new applications that promise to have a significant impact on the US economy, providing a broad range of job and investment opportunities.

Already, the Partnership has entered into agreements that will bring its efforts to 25 cities across the country, including small, medium and large municipalities. Additionally, a quickly growing number of commercial partners have agreed to be part of the US Ignite Partnership, including leading national telecommunications and networking corporations as well as regional and local organizations. US Ignite commitments include:

  • Industry partners offer support to partnership: Global industry leaders including Cisco, Juniper, NEC, and Hewlett-Packard are offering programmatic and in-kind support to communities while carriers, like Verizon and Comcast, are announcing new pilot cities on their network that will participate in US Ignite.
  • New tools for communities: Non-profits, like the Mott Foundation, are working with the partnership to deliver new community programs, such as hack days and startup weekends, to accelerate the transition these applications into the marketplace.
  • National coalition of universities: The National Science Foundation (NSF) is committing $20 million to prototype and deploy new technologies to advance the development of ultra-high-speed, programmable broadband networks. That is in addition to the ~$40 million that NSF has invested over four years in the Global Environment for Networking Innovations (GENI) project, which currently connects more than a dozen universities with next-generation broadband connections. Built with the technological contributions of more than 300 NSF-funded researchers at more than 60 universities, GENI is already serving as a virtual laboratory and testbed for next-generation applications in healthcare, energy efficiency, education, and other national priority areas.
  • Next-gen apps challenge to spur innovation: NSF and Mozilla Foundation, with support from the Department of Energy, are announcing a $500,000 design competition to develop applications for high-speed communities around the country.
  • Building on current broadband investments: Departments of Commerce and Agriculture are announcing their support for US Ignite with over six carriers that received funding for expanding their broadband networks while creating new community-based services.
  • Supporting military families and communities with new applications: Department of Defense is connecting military families on base with new US Ignite services, while creating new research opportunities to students at West Point. HHS’s Beacon Community Program, starting with the Mayo Clinic, and the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Healthcare Pilot Program are partnering with US Ignite to provide new healthcare applications, such as remote surgical theatre and patient monitoring.

During a launch event, researchers at Case Western Reserve University demonstrated a broadband-based simulated surgical theater, which they said could eventually be used at broadband-equipped medical schools across the country.

As the lead Federal agency for US Ignite, the National Science Foundation will expand its initial 4-year, ~$40 million investment in the Global Environment for Networking Innovations (GENI) project, which currently connects more than a dozen universities with ultra-high-speed, programmable networks. Built with the technological contributions of more than 300 NSF-funded researchers at more than 60 universities, GENI is serving as a virtual laboratory and testbed for research on next-generation networks to host new applications in healthcare, energy efficiency, education, and other national priority areas. NSF is committed to spending another $20 million to transition from building GENI to using it for Internet-scale experiments. To help achieve that, a cohort of participating universities will, over the next year, share “lessons learned” with candidate university partners.

Reaction to Announcements
Reaction to the White House announcement have generally been positive. House Commerce Committee Ranking Member Henry A. Waxman (D-CA) said, “Broadband deployment is key to growing our nation’s economy, creating jobs, and expanding the overall well-being of our citizens. Efficient use of federal lands and facilities along with prudent planning of new infrastructure projects will promote the expansion of broadband with significant cost savings to the American taxpayer. In particular, the Executive Order’s ‘dig once’ provision draws from a recommendation in the National Broadband Plan and legislation introduced by Congresswoman Eshoo that I co-sponsored, and I am pleased to support it. This is a win for the American people, and I commend the Administration for moving forward on these issues.”

At the Federal Communications Commission, Chairman Julius Genachowski said, “This Executive Order will foster job creation by reforming the procedures for access to federal
lands and buildings – making buildout faster and cheaper. It also will fuel economic growth by facilitating the construction of broadband facilities in Indian Country, and encouraging the deployment of broadband facilities in conjunction with federally funded highway construction. This Executive Order is also an example of how we can make government more efficient. It creates a process for streamlining and harmonizing federal regulations and standardizing contracting. The result will be cost-savings for taxpayers and private industry.” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said, “Today’s Executive Order will help bring the power of broadband to every corner of this country. These are the networks that are an essential part of our global competitiveness in the digital age. Access to these networks means opportunity, means jobs, and means innovation. The initiatives announced today will speed deployment of broadband infrastructure through nearly 30 percent of all land in the United States and will foster the next generation of applications that will support education, healthcare, energy, and manufacturing. It’s an exciting effort that has my full and enthusiastic support.”

Veteran telecommunication reporter Om Malik notes that the new order solves the following problems:

  • In order to approve broadband construction, different federal agencies have different processes.
  • The Federal Government owns about 30 percent of the US land, roads and over 10,000 buildings.

And the new order will make things simpler by:

  • Ensuring that Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Interior, Transportation and Veteran Affairs & the US Postal Service develop a single process to approve the Internet construction process.
  • The Department of Transportation will make sure that a dig-once policy is in place. So when new roads are being built, the construction teams should be included the empty pipes that can house fiber cables instead of having constantly to dig this up.

But Malik remains blasé about the Ignite part of the news. He worries that when it comes to competition, the current and previous Administration’s track records are deplorable. The situation today is that we live in a bipolar world of cable and phone companies. Both parties have a vested interest in letting each other thrive and dip deeper and deeper into consumer pockets. He’d like to see more intelligent policy to help build more fiber, easier Wi-Fi deployments and most importantly – competition – a lot of competition.

PCMagazine’s Sascha Segan is even less impressed by US Ignite. Calling it a strategy to make the Internet "100 times faster" by developing a one-gigabit network backbone between cities and universities, Segan says the government is frosting a plate without a cake on it. The broadband crisis in the US is about slow, expensive connections in the "last mile" to people's homes, not about backbone capacity and 3D medical imaging. The government could do something about that, but it won't. He, too, believes the focus should be on improving competition in the broadband marketplace. “US Ignite is all smoke and no fire. Until the Obama administration decides to enforce competition in broadband, our Internet connections will continue to be expensive and slow,” Segan concludes.

Community broadband strategist Craig Settles also offers his own reaction and points to more.

Finally, the Benton Foundation was pleased to publish this week a speech delivered by National Broadband Plan architect Blair Levin at the Fujitsu Conference on “Paving the Road to Unlimited Bandwidth.” The speech, “Upgrading America: Achieving a Strategic Bandwidth Advantage” begins with a question: “What happens if we remove bandwidth as a constraint to innovation?” Levin offers three assertions that lay the foundation for a communications policy that would accelerate next generation network deployments and services. They are about communications policy in the United States. They represent a policy shift, one that can be adopted no matter who wins the election; a shift that would lead to an acceleration of economic growth and an improvement in how we deliver essential government services. They are:

  1. As the principal activity of our economy and society is knowledge exchange, and as the Internet is its commons, the prime purpose of communications policy should be to improve knowledge exchange by delivering a strategic bandwidth advantage and a psychology of bandwidth abundance.
  2. The current market dynamics and regulatory structure in the United States will not deliver the wireline upgrade necessary to deliver a strategic bandwidth advantage nor a psychology of bandwidth abundance.
  3. Network upgrades are not only the best way to achieve a strategic bandwidth advantage and psychology of abundance; it is also the best way to address the traditional four questions of telecom policy.

Levin concludes:

We can spend billions trying to get everyone one a network, or we can create upgrade options for low-income individuals through the utilization of untapped resources in the existing network can bring a compelling value such that market forces do most of the trick.

We can, like Korea, mandate spending billions to upgrade everywhere to drive more effective use of the network, or we can upgrade in those places we know have, and are likely to do so in the future, create the kinds of improvements that scale everywhere and create new market forces that incent the private sector to invest in a broader upgrade.

Competition is trickier. Many upgrades created a new asymmetry in the market that triggers a competitive dynamic but not all do. Still we should understand that it is And we should understand that after that that the answer to creating a competitive dynamic that increases consumer welfare lies not in a rule that slows everyone down but in an environment that speeds somebody up.

That is why, I hope next year, the President of the United States tells the Chair of the FCC that his or her mission is to deliver a strategic bandwidth advantage for the country and a psychology of bandwidth abundance for consumers, and that the nation will holds the Chair accountable.

1) Requirements designed to reduce the number and scale of repeated excavations for the installation and maintenance of broadband facilities in rights of way.
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