February 5-11: Bringing Broadband to All of US

February 5-11: Bringing Broadband to All of US

Last week saw an incredible flurry of activity to advance universal broadband especially in rural areas and to America's first responders.

On February 4, the White House released A Strategy for American Innovation: Securing Our Economic Growth and Prosperity, an explanation of the essential role of innovation in our past and future prosperity, the central importance of the private sector as the engine of innovation, and the role of government in supporting our innovation system. Central to the report is the Obama Administration's National Wireless Initiative to help businesses reach 98% of Americans with high-speed wireless access within five years and also facilitate the creation of a nationwide interoperable public safety network. The initiative aims to free up 500 MHz of spectrum over the next 10 years. On February 10, President Barack Obama traveled to Marquette, Michigan to tout the importance of building the best communication network in the world.

The plan for making this happen is ambitious and complicated and relies heavily on the participation of cautious television broadcasters who are loath to easily give up their greatest asset -- spectrum, experts say. The plan would use $18 billion in federal funds raised by auctioning airwaves currently in the hands of television stations and government agencies to raise about $27.8 billion. $10.7 billion would go toward building an interoperable public safety network so first responders can communicate, send video files and e-mails during disasters and national security threats. The Administration also plans a one-time allotment of $5 billion from the Universal Service Fund to be used for wireless broadband expansion in rural areas. About $3 billion would go to a government research and development program for ways to use mobile Internet access for emerging technologies and applications in health, education and energy.

A plan this complex comes with political hurdles. House Republicans quickly reacted to the plan saying they supported raising revenue to address the deficit, but not for any invest in communications infrastructure. Others point out that Congress must step up quickly to authorize the "incentive auctions" of broadcast spectrum and broadcasters must be willing to give up some spectrum in order to make the plan work. Free Press , a vocal advocate for universal broadband, criticized the plan that could result in selling more of our public airwaves to wireless companies like AT&T and Verizon.

For those wondering why the focus on wireless -- Cisco continues to foresee an enormous surge in wireless demand. Cisco estimates that in 2010, North Americans transmitted 49 Petabytes (PB) per month over mobile networks. That’s about 4,900 times the amount of information in the printed collection of the Library of Congress. By 2015, Cisco expects this number will grow to 986 Petabytes ­ nearly one Exabyte, equivalent to almost 100,000 Libraries of Congress. In relative terms, Cisco’s projects 20X growth in the next five years.

A key part to the Administration's wireless plan is a nationwide interoperable public safety network. For many years policymakers have realized that first responders desperately need reliable, high-bandwidth communications in emergencies to ensure both their own safety and the public's. A chunk of spectrum -- often referred to as the D Block -- has been set aside for this new network. The Federal Communications Commission attempted to auction off this spectrum for a public-private partnership to provide this network, but no bids reached the minimum set by the Commission. Now Washington policymakers are debating whether a new auction should be attempted or if the spectrum should just be allocated outright to the public safety community. The Administration, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King (R- NY), and Senate Communications Subcommittee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) now support allocation. Republican House Commerce Committee leaders support an auction. In that National Broadband Plan, the FCC proposed a D Block auction, but FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski now seems noncommittal to the plan's recommendation.

This week also saw the FCC propose a sweeping streamlining and modernization of the Universal Service Fund which has been used for years to make telephone service more available and affordable in rural areas. As recommended in the National Broadband Plan, the FCC is proposing to shift support away from traditional telephone service to high-speed Internet networks. The proposal could make up to a billion dollars or more available to telecom carriers beginning next year to encourage them to expand high-speed Internet connectivity to rural areas that lack service. The money would be made available from savings achieved through the agency's proposed extensive overhaul. Harkening back to president Obama's State of the Union address, one newspaper called this effort the FCC's Sputnik Moment and called it a national imperative.

The FCC also launched its Broadband Acceleration Initiative to work with key stakeholders, including state and local governments, to expand the reach and reduce the cost of broadband deployment. Here the FCC is focused on reducing regulatory barriers -- such as barriers to accessing utility poles, rights-of-way, and sites for wireless towers -- to accelerate infrastructure investment.

Finally, with all the talk of new government investment in broadband deployment, the House Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, held an oversight hearing on broadband spending allocated under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Republicans generally see the broadband stimulus as government money that was handed out with insufficient oversight and with a shotgun approach that could wound the economy and discourage investment. Democrats view it as a necessary long-term stimulus to the broadband-centric economy by insuring affordable access to broadband to everyone. Both sides seemed to agree that to fund billions of dollars in broadband infrastructure and education programs would need ongoing oversight to make sure the projects were giving the public bang for their increasingly precious buck. But Republicans and Democrats remained divided over whether the government should be overbuilding existing service; how unserved vs. underserved areas should be defined; whether unspent money should be turned over to the Treasury or potentially recycled into other grants/loans; and how well, or poorly, the National Telecommunications & Information Administration and Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service were overseeing their perspective broadband stimulus programs. "Before we target any more of our scarce taxpayer dollars for broadband," said House Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI), "it is critical to examine whether the money already being spent is having an impact, as well as how we can minimize waste, fraud, and abuse. Let’s ensure our resources are being used wisely." These words may define the fight ahead for further public investment in broadband infrastructure.

One issue not addressed at the House oversight hearing was the role of the broadband stimulus in addressing end persistent poverty. The broadband stimulus programs are intended to make a difference over a period of decades by giving people in remote areas better access to educational resources and by helping to create an environment where long-term jobs can be created. Based on what Prof Mark Partridge has observed from similar programs, he predicted that 20 years from now, we will be able to see that there were a few counties where the broadband stimulus program clearly made a difference in helping to lift the counties out of persistent poverty. Partridge added, though, that you can't gauge the impact that a program such as broadband stimulus has on a county simply by studying the same county again at a later date. The reason is that we have a mobile society. Some people in a persistent poverty county are likely to gain a higher level of education as a result of the broadband stimulus program and simply move out of the county to pursue better opportunities, Partridge said.