Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan

The FCC issued a press release yesterday heralding the delivery to Congress of their National Broadband Plan later today. This was accompanied by the plan's executive summary and preview commentary on the plan's offical blog. The signs are good that education is high up on the Plan's agenda. From the press release:
"Affordable access in every American community to ultra-high-speed broadband of at least 1 gigabit per second at anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals, and military installations so that America is hosting the experiments that produce tomorrow's ideas and industries."
This is set out as Long-Term Goal No. 4 (of 6) in the exec summary, which also states:
"Government can influence the broadband ecosystem...(by reforming) laws, policies, standards and incentives to maximise the benefits of broadband in sectors government influences significantly, such as public education, health care and government operations."
"The plan contains multiple recommendations that will foster competition across the ecosystem. They include...clarify the Congressional mandate allowing state and local entities to provide broadband in their communities and do so in ways that use public resources more effectively."
I hope this second extract, in conjunction with the recommendations on anchor institutions, demonstrates recognition of the opportunity to extend the reach of education broadband infrastructure to serve under- and un-served communities. This is certainly something that shoud be explored further in the the UK so the US approach could provide a helpful model. I know of some instances where local schools are connected via local authority/RBC provision, but neighbouring homes and premises are too far from serving exchanges or mobile broadband networks to obtain any useful broadband service. A case of joining up the dots?

Two (or perhaps three?) birds with one stone here - deliver broadband to communities that don't have it, in a way that builds on existing infrastructure (therefore increasing RoI and demonstrating procurement/delivery efficiencies, very important in the current economic climate), at the same time as consolidating and increasing the capacity of the infrastructure serving schools and potentially other "anchor institutions" as well. If this can be done, what's not to like?

In addition, some comparisons can be drawn from the exec summary with the UK's proposed Next Generation Fund (as well as the objectives of the Home Access programme), in relation to the proposed Connect America Fund (CAF) and Mobility Fund. The former is to be created by shifting funds from the existing Universal Service Fund (see this previous post) and will support "the provision of affordable broadband and voice with at least 4Mbps actual download speeds". The latter is to "ensure that no states are lagging significantly behind the national average for 3G wireless coverage". A more inclusive appoach than that set out in the Next Generation Fund consultation, which ruled wireless out, on the basis of its inability to deliver NGA levels of bandwidth.

And on education specifcally, the plan includes recommendations to "improve the connectivity to schools and libraries by upgrading the FCC's E-Rate program to increase flexibility, improve program efficiency and foster innovation by promoting the most promising solutions and funding wireless connectivity to learning devices that go home with students." A similar upgrade to the current funding approach for UK education broadband is urgently needed if the current model is to be sustained? It's arguable that the many successes in delivering broadband to education in the UK (all schools connected, a successful local/regional/national approach, scalable provision, integration with JANET etc) have all been achieved despite the current funding approach, rather than because of it. Time for a re-think perhaps?

Finally, the exec summary states that "the plan is in beta, and always will be. Like the Internet itself, the plan will always be changing - adjusting to new developments technologies and markets, reflecting new realities, and evolving to realise the unforeseen opportunities of a particular time." Such a recognition is healthy I think, much more so than simply regarding broadband as a problem to be fixed, but at the same time it makes it much more difficult to define and measure success.

A huge amount of media coverage, as to be expected, such as this example from the BBC, while the FT continue their focus on spectrum reform obstacles (US broadcasters set for fight over FCC plan). But this commentary from Fierce Telecom is particularly interesting, suggesting that the FCC has disregarded some fundamental advice it itself asked for:
"...the FCC commissioned and then disregarded a study by Yochai Benkler at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society on how best to develop the national broadband policy it will be introducing tomorrow. Benkler used international market research to suggest that the best way to develop national broadband at fair prices would be to encourage widespread competition by forcing big companies such as cable MSOs to share their wires with smaller ones...The FCC has a history with political resistance to opening networks so it apparently would like to avoid the hassle when it comes to promoting a national broadband plan."
Benkler (whose FCC-commissioned 333-page study, Next Generation Connectivity: a review of broadband Internet transitions and policy from around the world, is available here) suggests that failing to take such an approach to ensure greater competition means you are just "engaged in cosmetics". Strong stuff.

Update, 15:20PM: The plan (all 376 pages of it!) has now been published and is available for download here.

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