Blair Levin remarks to City Club of Cleveland, OneCommunity

A Gigabit Garden Begins to Grow

Blair Levin – Executive Director, Gig.U
City Club of Cleveland – November 22, 2013

Today, I’m going to talk about cities and upgrading American broadband but let’s start with a story from the future that occurred a few months ago.

Yes, a story from the future that occurred a few months ago.

An executive from the Khan Academy—which produces broadband distributed educational content–was visiting the Innova Schools in Peru, which rely heavily on Kahn Academy materials. While the students were working away on the tablets, a teacher pointed to a student and said to the executive, “that student is about to ask me a question about negative numbers.” The Khan executive said “huh?” The teacher pointed to her tablet, which reflected the progress of each student. When any student got a problem wrong three times, there was a red mark, as there was for this student in the problem set involving negative numbers.

Seconds later that student raised his hand and asked the predicted question. And critically, the teacher assisted that student with the precise aide that student needed to move forward.

That is the future. It is happening today. Just not in many places in the United States.

It illustrates this: we know what the future looks like.

The way we teach, deliver health care, manufacture, construct, grow, sell, entertain, everything we do, will involve delivering information over broadband. And we’re going to need a lot more of it. That story about Peru could not occur in most American classrooms because, among other reasons, in 80% the bandwidth is inadequate for one-on-one instruction.

Which leads to this question.

Do you believe the wireline broadband network in your city will be sufficient to serve your needs ten years from now?

If so, you are in luck. Because that is the network you are likely to have.

If not, you have to start thinking now about how to obtain the network you will need because like other key assets for cities—airports, utilities, transportation hubs, distribution centers—they take considerable planning and time.

Further, while communications networks in the United States are generally financed with private capital, market forces are unlikely to deliver an upgraded network on a timely basis, if ever.

What I would like to do today is outline how some communities, who answered that ten-year question no, decided to take control of their bandwidth future and are accelerating an upgrade.

I’ll start by quickly explaining the national broadband policy, which to an underappreciated extent, is a city-driven policy. Then I’ll describe strategies and tactics some cities are using to accelerate the deployment of next generation networks. I’ll conclude with the key lesson for cities that want to control their bandwidth destiny to take advantage of the fast-growing, bandwidth-delivered economy.

My primary point is this: everything you do to plan for community growth and preservation and actions you routinely take today— affecting zoning, roads, housing, schools, social services—also affect the network you will have ten years from now.

And the abilities of that network will affect everything you do.

This is an important discussion that frankly, for too long, has been restricted to techie/policy wonks. We can’t keep thinking that this is something that the next generation will work on. Rather, failure to confront the importance of networks is a liability for positioning for a domestic and international competitive advantage.

So not only is this important for elected officials, it is also critical for city and regional planners as well as business and community leaders. Now is the moment for city leaders to accept the challenge, similar to that which President Kennedy provided with his moon shot and say that within the decade, their community will have a future proof network that will serve their needs in an information economy for generations to come.

Step back and ask, what do we want from broadband?

We want it to drive economic growth and social progress.

To do that we need a virtuous cycle of better networks driving the development of better devices, in turn driving the creation of better applications in a constantly repeating pattern, all the while abetted by people who know how to use and improve each part of that ecosystem.

The faster and more frequently those cycles repeat themselves, the greater the growth and social progress.

What do we need to do to create that virtuous cycle?

The National Broadband Plan suggested four foundation stones:
• Use spectrum more efficiently;
• Drive future-ready fiber optics deeper into the networks;
• Build and use broadband-enabled applications to deliver public goods and services; and
• Get everyone on the network.

As to spectrum, my guess is everyone in this room is carrying a mobile device. Spectrum is to that device what oil is to your car. And carrying the metaphor one step further, we’re all driving that car 100 times more than we did when I first arrived at the FCC two decades ago. So spectrum efficiently is pretty important. As the economics of wireless networks are driven by international standards, national institutions are best positioned to address spectrum issues allocation issues.

But cities affect mobile services in many ways. The availability of cell towers is driven by city policy. The power of Wi-Fi, which is displacing cellular as the primary network by which mobile devices access data, can be directly affected by city policies on wireline deployment. Indeed, almost all mobile communications travel over wired networks at some point so the better the wired network, the more robust the mobile service.

So cities have an important but secondary, role in the economics of spectrum. Their role in the other foundation stones is primary. As to the economics of fiber deployment local governments have a more direct impact on network construction cost. Local governments provide more services directly than the federal government. Adoption is correlated to those services and to local efforts. Therefore the success or failure of our country to build these last three foundations depends a great deal on what cities do.

I think it fair to say that the National Broadband Plan will actually be brought to the country by its cities.

Not only are cities better positioned on these specific challenges, they also, unlike much of the federal government these days, are capable of action. I won’t repeat the many lessons on this point from Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley’s seminal book “The Metropolitan Revolution,” but I would simply say it provided many examples of cities where policies, not rhetoric, are the coin of the realm; examples that resonated in every interaction with every city official with whom I have I worked.

Let’s focus today on a city’s role in driving fiber deeper into the networks.

The Plan did a study of the publicly announced plans to upgrade wireless and wired networks.

On the wireline side we discovered that for the first time since American ingenuity created the mass-market Internet, there were no national ISPs with plans to build a better-wired network than the current best available wired network.

Further, not only had cable won the battle for the best network (with the modest exception of FIOS territories), it also has a cheaper upgrade path. That combination makes it difficult for the telcos to finance an upgrade, in turn diminishing cable’s motive to upgrade.

Thus, while other countries already have faster wireline networks and still others are advancing in the process, it did not appear that a new wireline upgrade would be likely and that might, as a consequence, move the center of next generation applications development and information-dependant enterprises from the United States to places with faster networks.

In looking around about what to do about it, we became intrigued by what Case Western Reserve University was doing with its Beta Block, an experiment in which one block right off campus had access to the best network in the world.

We wanted to duplicate that experiment and began discussing the concept with a number of folks. While the Plan did not lay out an effective strategy for deploying such networks, Google embraced the goal of a critical mass of communities with world leading networks and that lead to the Google Fiber project. 1100 communities applied for the Google Fiber network, demonstrating a broad understanding of the benefit of a world-leading network for community economic and social development.

A subset of those applicants, communities with major research universities, including Case Western Reserve University and Greater Cleveland decided to organize the Gig.U project to determine if by working together, they could accelerate the deployment of such networks. That effort has lead to 18 communities now taking a variety of steps to upgrade their networks, which we discuss in a report we put up on the Gig.U website yesterday.

So when cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore, Seattle, Louisville, and many others, express a desire for gigabit networks, Cleveland should feel proud of its role in stimulating that movement.

Proud, but not content.

We still have a long ways to go but at least we have some strategies that hold promise. After all, this lack of an upgrade is not because the incumbents are lazy; it is because of the investment math.

So Gig.U set out to change that math with three basic strategies:

• Asset utilization and improvement;
• Regulatory flexibility to accommodate new business models; and
• Demand identification.

Let me drill down a bit on these.

Asset utilization and improvement.

Every city has a number of assets that if better utilized or improved could lower the cost of deploying next generation networks.

The process begins with an inventory of those assets that can affect deployment. The most obvious are rights of ways, including pole access and fees, conduit access, and building access.

Next comes making data and other information available regarding conduit, ducts, and other rights-of-way, as well as government-controlled facilities to which publishers can attach equipment.

You can establish policies that make rights-of-way and poles available to providers on a clearly defined, reasonable basis though a rapid approval process.

Each of these actions can lower the cost to a broadband provider of building a new network or upgrading a network.

Even without a specific provider in mind, cities can act—with minimal cost—to upgrade assets to ultimately reduce the cost of new networks.

For example, cities can install ubiquitous fiber conduit or even dark fiber that can be leased to approved entities. With a “dig once” philosophy that requires such installation anywhere there is road construction, cities can reduce deployment costs along roadways by 90% while adding less than 1% to the cost of construction, and also, minimizing disruption to neighborhoods.

Regulatory flexibility to accommodate new business models

I’m going to let you in on a public secret; a secret staring everyone in the face but that few recognize.

The most important policy that enables Google Fiber was the city allowing Google to let consumers determine where the build out should take place.

City officials did not dictate the map for Google’s build out. Instead, neighborhoods made that decision. Google built in those neighborhoods where there is sufficient demand to justify the investment.

It worked out to nearly the same level of coverage. About 90% of neighborhoods in Kansas City qualified.

But it dramatically reduced cost. It first lowered the risk; Google only has to build where it knew it had customers and risk always affects the long-term cost. More important, it facilitated a build out neighborhood by neighborhood instead of house by house. That means that one truck rolling out can connect multiple homes instead of just one, resulting in a massive reduction in the company’s capital expenditures.

Similarly, many cities that have attracted next generation networks have also been flexible in terms of expediting permitting and inspections. Again, in construction time is not just money. It’s a lot of money. Speeding up these processes can be critical to lowering the costs.

Demand Identification

A third key strategy is demand identification.

The pre-commitment tactic noted above enables demand identification. So does creating a web site that both pushes and pulls information, which both Google and Gig.U communities have done.

New York City did another version. Its ConnectNYC and WiredNYC is an effort, through greater transparency and competition in targeted areas, to bring together demand for higher bandwidth, thus improving the economics of deployment for those areas.

There are many such tactics, and the city should approach the issue as it would if going after any important economic development project. When that happens, city agencies, anchor institutions, like universities and health care facilities, major business interests, and other community institutions come together to pitch in various ways, to make the economics work for the project.

This is no different.

So those are the core strategies.

There are two other steps that cities are doing that are important to note here.

First, a number of cities are self-provisioning or using non-profits to provision networks to public enterprises. There are pros and cons of doing this but a number of cities find that such networks result in both cost savings and better performance. A city, after all, is a large enterprise with a number of divisions, such as public safety, education, and health services that are huge users of bandwidth. Like any enterprise, it has to consider the buy or rent math in performing its mission.

As we move to the Internet of things—in which machines communicate with other machines—cities will depend even more on bandwidth for every one of its functions, from improving traffic flow to evaluating public health risks. A city’s analysis of how to procure that bandwidth can affect the broader state of the network throughout the city.

Another step cities are taking—very low cost, very low risk, and enormously helpful,–is this; a simple request for information to vendors and others about how to accelerate deployment of networks to meet the cities future needs.

Chicago did one as did Gig.U and indeed, we have created a generic version, which various communities, including most recently College Station, Texas and Louisville, Kentucky have used as a baseline for creating an RFI for their specific needs.
The process inevitably leads to all parties, including incumbent providers, to having better ideas about how to build the kind of networks that allow American communities to lead, and not just follow in the global information economy that will mark this century.

It also leads to a testing a certain ideas. For example, a number of Gig.U communities would prefer an “open architecture” network, which effectively is a wholesale network open to multiple providers to sell to the end customer. This is in contrast to the cable and telco proprietary model in which only the network owner sells services afterwards. There are trade-offs in any model but I should note that Northeastern Ohio is lucky to have One Community’s open architecture network in place throughout the region, as it puts the region in the enviable position for the rapid deployment of innovation in bandwidth delivered services.

Time will tell which ideas work best. I should note that one important part of the Gig.U process is that each community learns from the efforts of the others. The most recent RFIs, from College Station, Texas and Louisville, Kentucky, built on the lessons of previous Gig.U efforts. The core lesson is that communities have to improve the math of investment by acting to lower the costs and increase the benefits. Los Angeles recently announced it is doing an RFP for, among other things, a gigabit network. I admire the motive but fear, based on press reports, that the RFP does not understand that math and therefore is less likely to succeed than it might otherwise. But it’s early in the game and we all benefit from seeing those willing to experiment try new things.

So what will these upgraded networks bring us?

We don’t know for certain. As the great computer scientist, and co-founder of Apple Media Labs Alan Kay noted, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

So it is with communities with world leading bandwidth; they get to invent it.

I have already noted how our classrooms might be transformed with greater bandwidth. This morning I read another confirmation in an education newspaper: a story about “New research (that) indicates that a technology-supported curriculum can help early learners better absorb STEM subjects, setting up at-risk early learners for more academic success down the road.”

This is just the start. We are learning the power of using games to teach, a power that increases with more participants, with greater visual fidelity, with greater player control, all of which require more bandwidth.

Another area is health care. One of the most moving moments for me in the Gig.U journey was when a great cancer doctor told me how he wanted to accelerate gigabit deployments as it pained him to know that there were patients who would die in the next few years who probably could be saved if the genomic sequencing analysis that would be fast and routine on such networks were around today.

And thanks to the next generation networks brought to you by Case Western Reserve and OneCommunity, Cleveland is already the home of a pilot public, private and community partnership designed to demonstrate the value of next generation broadband networks for wellness education around chronic disease management, specifically Type II diabetes, led by the Cleveland Clinic and health careers education led by the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. Equally compelling is the pilot work underway in Cleveland with Judson Manor as a model of smart living for senior adults.

The Gig project in Blacksburg, Virginia, home of Virginia Tech, is working on a gigabit enabled fitness application.

This spring, I was at a conference in Chicago at which several dozen big bandwidth applications made presentations. We don’t know which, if any, will make it in the commercial marketplace. But we do know that every aspect of the economy will become more and more dependant on bandwidth to deliver the goods and services of an information based economy.

And we have seen the impact on the over all community. As New York Times columnist Tom Friedman reported, upgrading the broadband network in Chattanooga, Tenn., to world-leading gigabit speeds has transformed the community from a “slowly declining and deflating urban balloon” to the fastest growing city in Tennessee, attracting “a beehive of tech startups that all thrive on big data and super-high-speed Internet.”

As I look back over the last several years of Gig.U activities, we see two big changes.

First, an increasing number of cities are recognizing the importance of upgraded broadband networks for economic development purposes. It is different than having a phone network, which was a binary; one either had dial tone or one didn’t. It is different than cable, which in its early decades was fundamentally about entertainment. Broadband networks are diverse in character and there is a wide spectrum of capabilities. But in an information driven economy, the better the network, the better the economic development prospects.

Second, an increasing number of cities are recognizing their role in the economics of investing in networks. Both within the Gig.U membership and with many other communities we have talked with, city leadership recognizes that it has to adopt new strategies to make the math for upgrades work. Not all cities have adopted this view, but as AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson’s noted, “(c)ities and municipalities are beginning to hold up their hands and say we would like you come in and invest. And they’re actually beginning to accommodate and tailor terms and conditions that make it feasible and attractive for us to invest. That being the case, you will see us do more and more cities around the country.” The proof, of course, is in the actions, not the words, but the difference between the rhetoric several years ago and now is striking.

In approaching this opportunity, no two cities are identical. But all face an inevitable future. As I noted at the beginning, this is a future that must be addressed, not just by the techies but by the entire community.

The most important thing we have learned at Gig.U is this: Local leadership is the single most important ingredient for success. If there are local leaders who put this at the top of their agenda, it can happen. If not, it won’t. In every one of the 18 communities where an effort has moved forward, there has been strong local leadership that has made it a priority for local political, business and civic interests. So again, now is the time for local leadership to step up and create the essential infrastructure for generations to come.
Let me close with this. Everyone my age knows exactly where there were 50 years ago on that terrible day and over the those five decades we have often contemplated what could have been if…if…if… In that context, it is odd to talk about an inevitable future. Much about the future is not inevitable. Individuals matter and can cause change, for good or ill. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, I think local leaders should think of future proofing their bandwidth as their equivalent of John Kennedy’s moon shot.

But the moon shot was optional. Some things are imperative. There are some trends more powerful than an individual that are a force that, like gravity, you ignore at your peril. So just as a century ago, when all cities had to start thinking differently about common infrastructure—land for an airport, roads that could handle cars and trucks, access to water and inputs for electricity for manufacturing and growth—so today, all cities should understand that they should be prepared for an economy that will increasingly be delivered over bandwidth.

This will mean different strategies for different cities, but the bottom line for all is this: in ten years, whether a city has faster, cheaper, better broadband networks will affect everything a it does; today many things a city does affects what kind of broadband networks it will have in ten years.

In this light, every city can be a gigabit-ready city. Cleveland has had start, thanks to many in this room, but don’t sit on your laurels. Other cities are catching up. Consider this story from the Ars Technica tech blog from this morning: “Fed up with slow and pricey Internet, cities start demanding gigabit fiber.”

A few years ago, gigabit cities in America seemed liked a distant vision. Thanks to the efforts of local leadership in communities all around the country, and particularly here in Northeast Ohio, that vision is now within view, no longer beyond the horizon.

Thank you.