The National Broadband Plan

In “Why Obama is In the Lead on High-Speed Internet Access Policy,” I implied that things had dramatically changed in national telecommunications policy since the release of the National Broadband Plan in March 2010.

I don’t want to leave the impression that the National Broadband Plan was anything other than extraordinary. It represented the culmination of an extraordinary effort in an extraordinarily compressed period of time carried out by an extraordinary team that was ably led by Blair Levin, the well-known telecommunications expert who is now spearheading the important Gig.U initiative in cities across the U.S.

Blair’s team always said the Plan was in “beta” and that the record they had created would (as the Introduction said) “guide the path forward through the rulemaking process at the FCC, in Congress and across the Executive Branch, as all consider how best to implement the plan’s recommendations.”

There is a great deal in the Plan – it is almost 400 pages long – and it has in fact informed a host of crucial policy efforts at the national level.

It made key recommendations, some of which have not yet been followed. That was not the fault of the Plan, of course.

For example, the Plan recommended that fine-grained, detailed information about pricing and competition for high-speed Internet access be published, that the video set-top box market be opened up (as Section 629 of the Telecommunications Act requires), and that Congress make clear that local public entities may make high-speed Internet access available. None of this has happened.

On the other hand, many of the Plan’s spectrum-related suggestions have been attempted or implemented. It recommended, for example, that 500 additional MHz of spectrum be made available for commercial high-speed data use, that incentive-based auctions for spectrum be considered, and that opportunistic use of spectrum be considered. Since the time of the Plan’s publication, much of this has happened or been tried.

Importantly, the FCC has taken on some of the most fundamental and most difficult aspects of the Plan with respect to universal service and the E-Rate program, greatly changing the landscape in this area. The E-Rate changes are particularly exciting (fiber to most US schools and libraries!) and may lead to the publication of the fine-grained pricing and market data that has so far been difficult for the FCC to gather and assess.

The Plan’s recognition that tens of millions of Americans did not have high-speed Internet access, and that this lack of access was a risk to the country’s innovative future, was extremely important. Adoption and digital inclusion issues were dealt with in great detail and with great insight in the Plan. Additionally, the Plan’s recognition that cost-saving opportunities in healthcare, education and energy use would be missed absent adequate infrastructure was needed and important.

A single sentence in the Plan changed my life: “Thus, in areas that include 75% of the population, consumers will likely have only one service provider (cable companies with DOCSIS 3.0-enabled infrastructure) that can offer very high peak download speeds.” The idea that (for most Americans) our only provider of high-speed Internet access would be our local cable company put me on the path of research and interviews that led to my first book, Captive Audience (2013).

The Plan acknowledged that it was not proposing a “specific path” for high-speed Internet access. Instead, it aimed at encouraging private innovation and investment, particularly for uses of the Internet.

From my perspective, one far less well-informed I am confident than that of Blair Levin, the Plan set the bar too low.

America should be leading the world, ensuring that its citizens have access to ubiquitous, world-class, competitive, inexpensive fiber optic connectivity. Wide availability of that fiber will, in turn, make possible untold numbers and varieties of wireless applications. To get there, world-class connectivity would have to be a top Presidential priority. Many policies would need to change to make use and deployment of second-rate communications media (hybrid-fiber coaxial cables, copper lines) relatively more expensive and less attractive, and installation of dark fiber networks—overbuilding existing incumbent networks—less expensive and more attractive.  But the first step could have been an audacious goal: All Americans should have access to competitive, inexpensive (say, $30/month), symmetric fiber optic connections. Price benchmarks drawn from other countries could have helped us set this audacious goal.

Blair points out, in response, that he was appropriately focused on execution, not aspiration. Here is what he said in a December 2013 speech:

[M]ost national broadband plans focus on the aspiration element. I understand why. Most of the press coverage of the Plans focuses on how the government frames the aspirations.

We had a problem in the United States with policy makers who thought the only point of the Plan was to articulate aspirations, rather than figure out a path to achieve them. So in the section on goals we added a reference <http://www.broadband.gov/plan/2-goals-for-a-high-performance-america/#_ednrefa> to a scene from Shakespeare in which one character says “I can call the ghosts from the vasty deep.” Another responds, “Why so can I or any man. But if you call them, will they come?” The point was subtle hint that the policy makers should focus on execution. Alas, I think it was too subtle. And the execution of our Plan gets mixed marks.

For in the long run, the key variable is execution.

The U.S. Army has a saying: “amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics.”

With broadband plans, amateurs talk strategy, rank amateurs talk aspirations, and professionals talk execution.

The Plan’s first goal was that 100 million U.S. homes have affordable access to 100 Mbps download speeds and uploads of 50 Mbps. That level of penetration had already been reached by the cable companies, the goal embraced  asymmetrical connectivity (the cable model), and “affordable” wasn’t defined.

The plan expressly did not analyze the market power of specific companies. It did not attempt to provide pricing data, acknowledging that pricing data was thin and unreliable. Nor did it make any statements about the state of competition for residential high-speed Internet access competition (with the exception of the crucial focus on cable’s power as the sole provider for most high-speed connections that I refer to above). It embraced the idea that facilities-based competition would continue to drive investment and protect consumers, an idea that was and is very popular among the incumbent providers but is not generally true where collaboration among those providers is possible (as it is in the US). For example, the Plan warmly adopted the notion that wireless and wired connections were in competition with one another—this is possible only at low speeds and for low-capacity uses. The Plan did focus on incremental improvements in wireless speeds and capacity that would drive adoption of life-changing applications. (See this speech by Blair.)

(It is true that both Google fiber and the Gig.U program led by Blair have been usefully disruptive, have prompted price cuts by incumbents, and have focused mayors on actions aimed at improving the connectivity situation in their cities.)

The plan did not take on the fundamental regulatory question of the FCC’s legal authority over high-speed Internet access, but instead said (in a short descriptive section) that the FCC would take on these legal questions in notice-and-comment rulemakings. In my view, this was a missed opportunity to be more assertive about the strategic need for the country to have an empowered cop on the beat when it comes to telecommunications networks.

Blair and I have a difference of opinion on this. In his view, there was a pending rulemaking going on at the FCC about net neutrality, and it would have been both destructive and wasteful to have two groups in the building working on the same issue.

The legal and strategic questions involved in high-speed Internet access are inextricably intertwined, I believe. Notwithstanding the existence of rulemaking proceedings about these topics, the Plan could have been an advisory, consultative document setting forth the questions about the FCC’s authority in much higher relief. Perhaps this is just a difference of rhetorical style. I do think those differences are important.

The thrust of my article was to point out that not much had changed with respect to the President’s approach to telecommunications policy until quite recently. I believe that to be true. I think, though, that the Plan’s contributions to changing the general state of high-speed Internet access in America (too expensive, too slow) have been important and could have been far more significant if they had actually been implemented.

Taking up just one thread of what is a rich tapestry of issues, I plan to write a column about the set-top box element of all this – the Plan was absolutely right to say that open devices were needed. Indeed, Congress had required this in Section 629 of the Communications Act. Why wasn’t that recommendation followed?

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