Thursday, December 04, 2008

A Nationlal Broadband Strategy Call to Action



Lafayette, in the person of Terry Huval, participated in Monday's "National Broadband Strategy Call to Action" in Washington. He was among a high-flying group that have worked to build a national policy to promote broadband availability and use. The signatories range from Google to AT&T to the American Library Association to the Communications Workers of America to Cisco to Teletruth to Internet2...and the Lafayette Utilities System. In short: a baker's list of representative of every contending group that has an interest in promoting a more available and better internet.

Quite frankly some national policy is needed. It may come as a shock to hear that the US doesn't have a policy—to hear that it doesn't have a coherent approach to the most basic infrastructure need of our time. The record is clear: countries that have widely available, capable, inexpensive wired and wireless networks have them because they've instituted real national broadband policies. Not necessarily the same strategy—but some strategy. (The US experience is a substantial part of how we know policies work: the US is the clearest example of what happens when you lack such a policy: we dropped from 1st in the world to near the back of the industrial pack in the last 15 years and pay more for broadband than countries with much better service. Countries with a systematic plan have roared to the front—and saved their citizens real money to boot.)

Frankly, the whole Fiber Fight here in Lafayette has been a consequence of our national failure to deal with the issue. With a real national policy building our network would have been either 1) impossible (had the incumbents had their way) 2) explicitly legal and federally protected (had the progressives prevailed). A fight was only possible because there was no policy. So Lafayette has, as the highest profile and most successful battle to put in place a real forward-looking plan in at least one place in the US, involved in this issue for a long time. Lafayette is also involved because Jim Baller, LUS' attorney and champion through much of the fight was the organizer and chief proponent of the gathering.

So, with such a long-standing good reason to get on with it why does the idea of a national broadband policy take off now? Well, Baller has been driving this forward on the basis of national pride and competitiveness and that provided some traction as the US continued to slip in the rankings. But with a new, progressive administration and the collapse of the financial market there is a the new acceptance of infrastructure construction as economic stimulus. It's apparent that there will be a big(ger) stimulus package soon that shifts the emphasis from giving money to people who have made bad decisions to stimulating the economy by building things that we can all fruitfully use. With money on the table for the incumbents, the unions, and the equipment manufacturers the dawning possibility of actually getting a national broadband policy in place that will promote the interests of the municipalities, the internet companies, and the net citizen groups all see the value of coming to an accommodation before the moment passes. That may be (is) a somewhat cynical view. But it fits the moment it seems to me. Economic stimulus in hard times seems an effective motivator.

With some background out of the way on to the Call itself: It is only a call...not the plan itself. Probably the most important single accomplishment so far is getting such broad consensus on the idea of a national policy. To date the incumbents have fought the very idea of a national policy or promoted the idea that our current incoherent approach somehow constituted an implicit one. Getting them to help promote the idea that a policy is desireable is the biggest single accomplishment of the day. The meat of the two page call is the suggested goals.
Goals
  1. Every American home, business, and public and private institution should have access to affordable high-speed broadband connections to the Internet.
  2. Access to the Internet should, to the maximum feasible extent, be open to all users, service providers, content providers, and application providers.
  3. Network operators must have the right to manage their networks responsibly, pursuant to clear and workable guidelines and standards.
  4. The Internet and broadband marketplace should be as competitive as reasonably possible.
  5. U.S. broadband networks should provide Americans with the network performance, capacity, and connections they need to compete successfully in the global marketplace.
Even a cursory read of that reveals a lot glittering genralities...the "built by a committee" nature of the thing is apparent. Baller himself, during the introduction (see video above), spoke of the judgment of some that the call is "mealy-mouthed and watery." His point the current document is only a start on a larger project. The call for universal, affordable access is particularly noteworthy. That, by itself, calls for a huge project to reach everyone and substantial change to the current structure of telecommunications policy.

And there are a few points of real progress: Beyond agreeing that a broadband policy is necessary and should be affordably available to all, the various interests seem to agree that broadband is infrastructure. Getting agreement there is a real advance. Even more specifically: both AT&T the Communications Workers union talk about an refreshingly ambitious target: a 10 megs standard and making broadband cheaper overall.

With LUS already setting up to offer 10 megs as their cheapo, slow tier and offering it all for 20% less Lafayette will have already met that goal. Nation, please take notice. Frankly, that should make it easy to see that the municipal alternative should be encouraged in any national policy....

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