The Un-Tragedy of the Commons and Bandwidth Abundance

Reflections on the Pew Study on Killer Apps in the Gigabit Age

Three years ago, Blair Levin, a former Federal Communications Commission Chief of Staff and Executive Director of the National Broadband Plan, organized Gig.U, a coalition of three dozen research university communities working to accelerate the deployment of next generation networks to serve their communities. Over two-dozen communities have, or are now in the process of, deploying such networks. This week the Brookings Institute named Blair a non-resident Fellow in its Metropolitan Policy Program, causing FCC Chairman Wheeler to note, “No one's done more to advance broadband expansion and competition thru the vision of National Broadband Plan & Gig.U.”

In light of Blair’s background, we asked him to reflect on the report released today by the Pew Research Center on “Killer Apps in the Gigabit Age.”

What is the opposite of tragedy?

Comedy? Perhaps in the theater, but in real life tragedy involves things going badly. Comedy involves things going amusingly but not necessarily well.

The lack of an accurate antonym to tragedy is striking in contemplating the “tragedy of the commons,” the idea that individuals, acting according to each one's self-interest, may behave contrary to a community’s long-term interests by depleting a common resource. The iconic example is sheepherders allowing their sheep to over-graze common land, resulting in less for all over time. Today, we have many examples, with the destruction of common resources like water or air.

But what of the Un-Tragedy of the Commons; when individuals act according to both their own individual and a group’s long-term interest to create and nourish a common resource? While economics may not have a clever turn of phrase to describe it, it does happen. Projects like New York’s Central Park or, more recently, the High Line, demonstrate our capacity to act collectively to create and improve communal resources.

Recently, we have seen an explosion of communities doing precisely that with broadband. From Champaign Urbana to the Research Triangle Park, from Louisville to College Station, from Connecticut to New Mexico to Maine, dozens of communities have recognized that the broadband networks they use today will not be sufficient in the years ahead. They also recognized that current market forces were unlikely to deliver the abundant bandwidth they would soon need. Therefore, they have taken action to change those market dynamics.

These efforts are designed to prepare the communities for a future dependent on much greater bandwidth. No one, however, knows for certain what that future will bring. We can, however, know more by reviewing the Pew Research Center study on Killer Apps in the Gigabit Age. The study provides an essential collage for how future proof networks may play out. Its 55 pages provides snippets from the 1,400 experts it interviewed, laying out a myriad of ways networks with abundant bandwidth will change how we work, live, learn and in other ways interact with others and our world. The bottom line is telling; while the experts surveyed saw the opportunities very differently, a vast majority—86%—agreed that there would be “new, distinctive and uniquely compelling technology applications that capitalize upon significant increases in bandwidth in the United States by 2025.”

The experts had a wide range of views on the most important single gigabit killer app. Still, one consistent theme is how such networks will enhance the meta-killer app: human collaboration. Most of the ideas proffered could fit under the category of “high-performance knowledge exchange.” Nothing will ever replace face-to-face communications but, as many experts projected, every lesser form will be improved by the opportunity to use telepresence and other big bandwidth tools that vividly enable near face-to-face meetings. Throughout the report, one can read of how mashing together high-resolution video, big data, sensor networks, and other bandwidth dependant ways of exchanging information will alter our current patterns, bringing new forms to what Big History refers to as humankind’s unique “collective learning.”

A distinct category for such collective learning noted by the Pew experts involves augmented reality, which can be enhanced to provide more immersive experiences for individuals and groups regardless of locations. While the immediate money makers of these functions will likely be multi-player games and other forms of entertainment, no doubt it will also have extraordinary benefits for job training, education, and health care. Anyone who has ever been inside the Cave in Chicago will understand how powerful such immersive environments can be and how younger generations will be able to learn about science, geography and many other fields in ways that dramatically increase comprehension.

That leads to another theme throughout the report; how education and health care can be transformed with gigabit networks. The report is full of examples, from continuous health monitoring to online education moving closer to the interaction of today’s classrooms, where abundant bandwidth can lead to progress. Importantly, as noted by several experts, these opportunities do not replace the role of teachers or others in similar roles. Instead, such networks enhance the ability of humans to do what only they can do: inspire, motivate, and provide an emotional connection to the work at hand.

Every time there is a new technology, we appropriately raise the question of whether the technology will create greater inequality in society. Some experts did so in this report. This is a legitimate question, but sadly, it is often debated on grounds that ignore facts, economics and policy outcomes. In this case, we should be greatly concerned about lack of “digital readiness”, which affects about a third of America’s population but is not caused by gigabit deployments, and enthusiastically embrace the opportunity such networks have to bring new paradigms of education and health care, in which the best for one is available to all.

Ironically, none of the answers reflected what is likely the primary reason for users today: better performance. I grew up in working-class Los Angeles car culture, driving nothing but old used cars until, in my freshman year, a classmate let me drive his new BMW around the Santa Cruz Mountains. It didn’t have a killer app in the sense of flying or traveling through water. I had to stop at red lights and stick to the speed limit. But driving it was awesome; an experience duplicated when I was in Kansas City and used Google Fiber. I have spoken to dozens of communities and seen eyes glaze over when terms like “immersive”, “big data” or even “gigabit” get tossed around. But I have never met anyone who couldn’t comprehend the benefits of cruising the highway, or the Information Highway, in a new BMW instead of a ten-year old Rambler.

My favorite answers in the Pew report revolved around the theme of “Who knows”? The capitalist version was expressed by the Pew expert who said, “If I knew, I wouldn’t tell you. I would invest in it!” The youthful idealist version was expressed at a Gig.U related event at the University of Maine where a student said, “what’s most exciting is what we don’t yet know.”

He’s right. As historian Paul David deftly illustrated in his paper on the “diffusion lag” in fully utilizing the opportunities created by widespread electrical power or any technology, it can take decades for humans to rethink their processes to create the truly new.

That traditional technology lag, and the futuristic visions noted by the Pew experts might cause some to believe Gigabit networks may not deliver economic value for years to come. The economic data suggests, however, that markets are already recognizing fiber’s added value. Studies indicate, though on admittedly early and limited evidence, homes connected to fiber enjoy a market value $5,000 greater than equivalent homes limited to just cable and copper. The presence of next generation networks has recently jumped to a leading requirement for economic development recruitment. A recent Fiber to the Home Council study showed a $1.4 billion gain in GDP by 14 communities with widely available fiber. Imagine the impact on those numbers when the type of uses the study notes become commonplace. While the plural of anecdote is not data, it is nonetheless telling that, as the New York Times reported, entrepreneurs are flocking to that small subset of cities blessed today with tomorrow’s bandwidth.

We also know this; we don’t want innovation constrained by bandwidth. To get there, we need a market structure where the providers have incentives to provide abundant, ever increasing bandwidth, at no incremental cost. In a world of cable v. cooper, the incentives are to allocate scarce bandwidth at high marginal costs. In a world of cable v. fiber, market dynamics can shift to provide the bandwidth necessary to fuel the discovery of what we don’t yet know.

Will we create those dynamics? Some in the report expressed pessimism, citing the current market structure and federal policies that impede progress. In a way, I share that pessimism. While discussions during the National Broadband Plan lead to the Google Fiber Initiative, clearly the key stimulus driving the effort to future proof networks, federal policy makers have largely been on the sidelines. Near the end of his term FCC Chairman Genachowski finally recognized the need for faster networks, but gave a speech on the subject devoid of any analysis, with a policy recommendation—a personal challenge without any federal support—bordering on silly, unless one believes the barrier to deployment was his prior failure to ask.

But I also believe now is the time for “pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will.” Thanks to a number of factors, the Game of Gigs is afoot in dozens of communities. There is progress on the federal policy level as well. FCC Chairman Wheeler has given a series of far more serious speeches, analyzing the problem, laying out principles for how to approach the effort and a few policy prescriptions, with the hint of more to come. A federal focus on abundant bandwidth is a prospect devoutly to be welcomed.

The progress to date of municipal efforts, and the prospect of the kinds of opportunities Pew highlights, suggests our society should not tarry. As Pew helpfully illustrates, the future may be uncertain but it is already clear that everything a community does ten years from now will be affected by the quality of the broadband networks it uses. It is less obvious, but equally true, that many things communities do today will affect the broadband it has ten years hence. We have it in our power to create an Un-Tragedy of the Commons. The time to start up is now.

By Blair Levin.