Thursday, April 09, 2009

Now THATS a National Broadband Plan

Broadband advocates here in the good old US of A have been getting a little giddy at the sight of the federal government's machinery groaning into low gear to actually start the process of formulating a National Broadband Plan. (Yes, that explains why we haven't appeared to have a plan. We haven't.) Why just yesterday we started the planning process. First, in the distantly snide tone only the WSJ can pull off: the FCC "approved a broad set of questions designed to solicit opinions from consumers, telecom companies and state and local governments, to name a few." The FCC is gearing up to gear up because Congress has delegated to them the task of being the big thinkers on the 7 billion of the stimulus plan dedicated to broadband that is to be administered by bureaus within the Commerce Department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The FCC is supposed to devise the "national broadband plan" that will guide the decisions these bureaus make. (It's all in the law.)

I've been feeling pretty hopeful about the process...hey, it's a start. And a big step up from facing toward Fort Knox, closing our eyes, bowing low, and repeating the mantra "the market" 20 times as a substitute for telecom policy. Now I know that the money is actually being distributed in bureaus elsewhere and the people making those real decisions are all the way across the District of Columbia from the FCC...and it won't be ready in time to make a difference with the current stimulus money anyway, but still...to have something on the books that is supposed to be rational and comprehensive would be helpful, won't it? At least a start?

But all that feel-good sorta melted away when Austrailia announced its broadband policy: FTTP; Fiber To The Premise. At 100 megs. For the whole country, or 90% of the population anyway. (The most rural 10% will have to make do with a minimum of 12 megs—but everyone is offered real service.

Wowser.

And the way they're gonna do it! The government had been negotiating to fulfill a campaign promise to expand broadband access with the incumbents and some foreign corporations who, of course, wanted to be made lords of the domain for the next 50 years or so if they were to deign to do anything very useful. That part sounds familiar. We've got campaign promises and lords of the domain too... But the Austrailian government did something that it is hard for Americans to understand: they took a look at the I-want-it-my-way suggestions of the big corporations and grew a spine. They told 'em that they weren't offering a "good value" in return for the public's investment and that rather than accept any of their self-serving plans that they'd rather do it themselves.

They announced that they were intending to fund a Australian 43 billion dollar (30 billion USD) National Broadband Network (NBD). The government would get no less than 51% of the company and effective control; private investors would be allowed to buy in to 49% with the previously rejected telecom corps strongly urged to buy in...and to contribute their network assets to pay for their share. Take it or leave it. And if the telcos want to leave it: be aware that the Aussie national government fully intends to issue a new set of regulations enforcing structural separation that would effectively force open access on the current network assets they retain. The new National Broadband Network will be open as well. The old way of doing business is over; there is no comfortable monopoly—vertical or horizontal—to go back to.

Australian broadband advocates are pretty much stunned. (Imagine the US government saying anything remotely like this to Cox, Comcast, AT&T and Verizon? You know: "Take your greedy plans to feed at the public trough and shove it. We can build our own advanced network for the price your asking buddy, thanks plenty.—and by the way, no more local monopoly for you either, we're going back to real regulation of you guys." Oh You can't imagine it? Neither could the Aussies. Until now.)

We in Lafayette are in a particularly good position to see how much sense this all makes. We were happy to build it ourselves when told by the incumbent lords that we did not need and were not competent to run a modern FTTH system ourselves. That system is up and running and serving customers today—and doing so quite well, thanks. Since making that committment we've benefited by consistently being spared rate increases placed on other communities and, most recently, by getting a second 50 meg provider (albeit only 50/5) at a price that is 1/3 off what they plan to charge the rest of the country for that speed. And we got that before any of the big markets Cox serves or even the larger cities in our own market. Almost any other part of our country would kill for that sort of service and absolutely no place has it for as little as we pay. It pays to stand up for yourself in public as in private life.

Good on the Aussies. There's is a real national broadband plan. It will fix what's really wrong the current system. The current Aussie system, modeled in part after the mistakes we in the US were making, had resulting in a market with even more of the markers of monopoly dominance than ours. Aussie markets were more monopolized. The equiavalent of AT&T/Verizon, the telecom Telestra, was at least as insistent on maintaining its virtically integrated monopoly position and the cable sector was much weaker. Australians paid even more for broadband than Americans and an even smaller percentage of them were capable of getting really world-class speeds.

Going forward this will no longer be true. Australia will have a truly world-class network running at stunning speeds and capable of massive upgrades at minimal costs. Where homes in places where the villages have less than a thousand people don't have direct fiber they will have fiber-fed wireless. The final few deep in central desert will get satellite at no less that 12 megs. This is a public policy (and a stimulus) that will bear fruit for generations. When people talk about "forward-thinking" this is what ought to be meant.

While we cheer on the Australians ("Go for it, mate!") we on this continent have to feel a little bummed and whiny. Why can't we have a rational telecom policy, too? The up side is that the unthinkable is now finally thinkable. An English-speaking continent has taken the plunge and told their teleco monopolists that the current system is broken and then put forward a credible plan for fixing it that doesn't grovel and plead before of those that have failed them. Maybe we can do the same. Or at least talk about it!

In fact, not all is yet lost on these shores: One of the guiding lights of the Austrailian success was Paul Budde, long an advocate for a smart national plan in Australia. To read his blog these days is a real joy. He's as stunned as his fellows but is rallying nicely—telling the doubters in one example "Yes, we can!" in a deliberate reference to the hopes for a positive change that are now dominant in the U.S. Even more encouraging is the fact that he's also been in consultation with the Obama administration since before they took office and has no doubt been an advocate for much of this before our own leaders. I'd guess that until a few days ago his ideas, while judged rational in some sort of ultimate way, were not considered "pragmatic"—a key desiderata for the new administration. That judgment may now have changed. Indeed, on Budde's blog he remarks in the comments to his well-worth-reading analysis that:
I also received envious but very supportive comments from the Obama Team, they are very interested and several of the experts are eager to participate in our work group to contribute and to learn.
Not to get your hopes up but, perhaps, just perhaps someone here will say: "Yes! We can!"

Addenda:
If you want a bit more, yes I've got the fun references: Budde's Blog, The NYTimes, ZDNet Australia, Tasmania rollout to start in July, The Netherlands: Telecommunications Breakdown, France's Fiberevolution, or try your own Google News search.

Lagniappe: New Zealand, who recently announced a great plan too, is also jealous now: "Newman said that while the NZ National proposal looked visionary a year ago, it now looks comparatively limp." Aussie Envy; it's the latest syndrome to afflict the digerati.

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