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Two Broadband Visions: Taking the One Less Traveled

It is counter intuitive but a remarkably accurate way to initiate a conversation about contemporary technology and innovation is to invoke the timeless wisdom of Proverbs 29:18: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

For the right question turns out to be what is the right vision for how our government today should act in relation to the deployment of broadband networks and services in the United States? Today I will outline two competing visions and close with an example of how we can improve our economy through following the better, but today, less recognized vision.

 

First, two competing visions.

Vision One is what one might call “connected America.” This vision has a noble lineage, reflecting the dream of the early last century that every home would have electricity and a phone. This vision has been, as measured in dollars spent by the government, the prevailing vision at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and elsewhere.

Applied to the world of today, this vision incorporates as its the prime directive for policy  to assure that every American home is connected to a wire that brings it broadband.  And given the current market structure, it means the FCC focuses on deployment of baseline broadband networks in less than 10% of the country.

Vision One believes the primary role of government in communications policy is to provide a subsidy to network services in rural areas, as those are places where market economics would not connect our fellow Americans. It builds on the world of our grandparents and seeks to protect the world of the wire line phone companies they built; companies that did much to enrich the world we live in today. Its primary purpose is to lower prices in high-cost areas through subsidies that move money from urban to rural areas.

It is not a bad or evil vision. And it has some virtues.

It has a simple message; connect everyone.

It has easy politics; even conservatives who often hail from rural states are willing to overlook their small government inclinations for a subsidy that overwhelmingly takes from urban areas and supports their constituents.

 

 

Connecting America
MessageSimple
PoliticsSimple
ImperativeDeployment
MechanismProvide Subsidy
FocusDeliver an comparable network everywhere
Population BeneficiaryRural
Network BeneficiaryWire line Telephone
Prime PurposeLower Prices in High Cost Areas

 

Again, it is A decent vision, well meaning, and one with a noble lineage. But one unfortunately, and fundamentally wrong for our time, the 21st Century.

I’d like to propose an alternative.

I’d like to start by recalling my favorite Apple ad. No, it’s not ‘think different’ or Mac v. PC. It’s a little known ad from the early 90’s in which three middle managers look out on an office filled with computers on desks and one asks, “what do you think is the most powerful computer?”

One colleague answers with a set of technical parameters. The other answers with a different set. Then the one who asked the question says, “I think the most powerful one is the one people use” and the camera pans to a group of workers huddled around the latest Apple offering. That insight—that power is not about the technology but how people use the technology—ought to be at the heart of the vision.

It also happened to be at the heart of the National Broadband Plan.

As we built that plan, we saw that the core task for our economy and civic society is not the building of a network but how we use it. And that the primary use is knowledge exchange. We gather information, analyze it, act on it, and then through a feedback loop, continually revise courses of action.

Three revolutions in the last two decades have transformed knowledge exchange:

  • the data revolution–collecting and providing trillions of data points previously unavailable;
  • the computing revolution—analyzing that data, making tasks that would have seemed like finding of a needle in a galaxy of haystacks as common as locating the moon in the night sky; and
  • the communications revolution–allowing us to transfer the data and analysis anywhere, anytime, to anyone with speeds and at costs unimaginable when the ground was broken for this convention center less than two decades ago.

 

This knowledge exchange revolution affects every sector of the economy; from construction to agriculture; from manufacturing to retail.  It is our next frontier.

While knowledge exchange takes many different forms, it inevitably shares a common platform: the broadband ecosystem; the interaction of networks, devices, applications, and, above all, people who know how to use it.

We’ve talked for years about broadband causing a convergence of voice, video and data markets; how once sole purpose telephones, televisions and computers are morphing into devices capable of carrying any kind of traffic. Far more important, however, is how that convergence has created a commons of collaboration.

As broadband is the common collaborative platform for both the economy and our civic society, we need to have a broadband ecosystem that facilitates knowledge exchange in ways that are constantly more robust, more effective and faster. Thus, this is the core idea of the National Broadband Plan: high performance knowledge exchange.

In one sentence, the National Broadband Plan is, at its core, about assuring that America has a broadband ecosystem that enables high performance knowledge exchange.

Having such an ecosystem does not assure success. Not having it, however, guarantees failure. Without it, there is no possibility of leading in clean energy, education, healthcare or of responding effectively to international competition. During the planning effort, the necessity of this kind of ecosystem became startlingly clear.

First, we realized this is more than just networks, as it is the interaction of networks, devices, applications, and the people who use them that facilitate high performance knowledge exchange. Second, the ecosystem must be ubiquitous so all can benefit and all are included in the work of our economy and society. Third, it must be diverse in each of its parts. We need multiple, interconnected networks, a full spectrum of applications, all manner of devices, and all manner of persons using it.

It is that diversity that drives the innovation we need that leads to the most critical element; that the ecosystem must constantly evolve and improve.. Improvements in each element should drive improvements in the others in a constant, virtuous feedback loop: better applications driving more usage driving upgraded networks driving more powerful devices capable of better applications and ever onward; above all, continually improving actual use.

Government is not the primary provider of any part of this ecosystem. It must, however, assure its rules drive, and do not suppress, improvements in this ecosystem. Further, it must rethink how it delivers essential public services in light of new opportunities created by this ecosystem.

This different vision has many consequences.

In such a world the prime imperative is not deployment to rural areas, but use by all. That itself has a number of consequences.

One is that adoption should be a higher priority. Deployment is still important. About 20 million Americans cannot adopt without government aid in deployment. But four times that number have problems adopting without some similar—though far less—government assistance

Another consequence is to challenge a core historical legacy of the Connected America vision:  that if anyone anywhere gets a service, everyone everywhere should get the same service at the same price.

This was a great idea when the only option was wire line dial tone. But in today’s multi-mode broadband framework, the idea should be to get the right network service everywhere to meet the specific use case of the specific user.

While Connect America focuses us on how to deliver a subsidy, the new vision should focus us on to deliver high performance services.

While Connect America focuses on rural areas and wire line telephone networks, the new vision focuses on all of America and lets consumer use determine how programs should be structured, and what technologies to use.

In sum, we need to refocus government’s efforts from the view that its prime purpose is to lower rates for wire line telephone users in rural areas with the purpose of increasing the value of digitally delivered services—particularly essential public services like education, public safety, job training and health care—for the economy and society.

 

Connecting AmericaHigh Performance Knowledge Exchange
MessageSimpleComplex
PoliticsSimpleComplex
ImperativeDeploymentUse
MechanismProvide SubsidyDeliver High Performance Service
FocusDeliver an equal network everywhereDeliver the right network and services for the use case
Population BeneficiaryRuralAll
Network BeneficiaryWire line TelephoneConsumer/Use Determined
Prime PurposeLower Prices in High Cost AreasIncreased Value of Digital Services for Economy and Society

 

This is the better vision for America; one that reflects that broadband, unlike dial tone, is a much more complex and powerful platform for human collaboration. This vision has two distinct disadvantages; harder messaging and harder politics. But we should not let that deter us. We should always aspire to do what is right in the long-term; not what is easy in the short term.

And we should bear in mind the wisdom of Peter Drucker who wrote, the danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to react with yesterday’s logic. Connected America reflects yesterday’s logic; high performance knowledge exchange reflects today’s logic.

The poet Robert Frost wrote of taking the road less traveled has made all the difference.

That road lies before us, and we must choose wisely, as it will indeed make all the difference for our citizens, and for our place in the global, knowledge-based economy.

For there are many areas in which the old road of Connected America will serve as an anchor, not an engine of economic growth. Let me focus on one.

As noted above, Connected America focuses on baseline wire line networks for all while high-performance knowledge exchange sees the challenge having an ecosystem is constantly improving. That requires an ecosystem that keeps pushing the envelope in a way that improves the odds of having technological leadership.

In the old world of unquestioned American supremacy in all sectors of the global economy, the AT&T monopoly, and Bell Labs, this proved a relatively easy challenge. In today’s world, it is much more difficult.

Moreover, we have to admit that while there are many advantages of the two-wire market structure we in the United States—almost unique in the world—enjoy, it makes upgrades much more difficult for a service provider to finance. They have to spread the cost over fewer customers and they face a risk of a competitive response that makes Wall St. more nervous than, as in most parts of Europe and Asia, there is not material risk of another wire line competitor for most of the population.

Indeed, one reads about massive wire line upgrades in Korea, Japan, as well as other places in Asia and Europe. Just this weekend came another report of a company in England seeking to invest $800 million to connect 50,000 businesses and 4% of British homes to open-access fiber. One does not read such reports of investments in wire line infrastructure in the United States. In fact one reads of Verizon and AT&T deciding not to proceed with such upgrades, which, again, as a former Wall Street analyst, I both understand and applaud.

But that leaves open a big-time question for the United States, with huge consequences: how do we make sure the United States does not fall behind in creating a new generation of networks, and services based on those networks?

How do we make sure we have the people that know how to design, build, operate, and most of all, innovate on top of the next generation of networks?

The National Broadband Plan suggested a critical mass of test-beds but did not have a practical way to stimulate them.

Google, to its credit, took on the challenge of building one itself.

It also caused 1,100 communities to self organize to improve the business case for new or upgraded networks.  This is remarkable.

Some of us from the Plan realized Google had opened the door to that critical mass, as they had demonstrated the willingness of communities to reorganize themselves to encourage providing next generation networks. So we decided to jump in and focus on those communities with both the best economics and the most innovative cultures: university towns.

As the great, and dearly missed, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said that if one wanted to create a successful city, one should build two-world class research universities and wait 50 years. We think the insight (as many of Senator Moynihan’s)—that great research institutions are engines of growth—is absolutely right. And we have the greatest collection of research institutions anywhere in the world.

We don’t think we have to wait 50 years – nor can we afford to – if we can throw world-leading bandwidth into the mix. Just as manufacturing grew in the 19th and 20th Century by combining new sources of power with new modes of transportation, we believe the fastest growing parts of the economy of our time—the sectors in which better understanding of data is the principal source of wealth creation—require us to combine the best of human capital with the best of bandwidth.

As I noted above, broadband is the commons of collaboration for our time; combining the communities that surround our research institutions with world-leading bandwidth will demonstrate that high-performance collaboration—not one way video, not restaurant reviews, not discount shopping—is the killer app of the next generation of the Internet.

So 37 university communities have come together for the common mission: accelerating the deployment of next generation networks and services in the United States. By accelerating those next generation services and networks, we can ignite a new generation of innovation, new approaches to solving some of society’s most vexing problems, and in the process, enrich our communities as well as companies. If we remove bandwidth as a barrier to innovation for the right 1% of the country, we can increase the value of providing massive bandwidth to the other 99% of the country.

So as we look to that goal, we ought to consider new ways, and new partnerships, that may not make sense in other places, but in these test beds, in these communities, are the kindling we need to ignite that new generation of opportunity.

If we do, we won’t have to look around the world and say, in the words of the title of a new best seller, “That Used To Be Us.”

Rather, if we succeed in creating a platform for high-performance knowledge exchange, we will be able to say, this is still us.

 

-Blair Levin, Executive Director

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