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June 30, 2007

Why the National Broadband Debate Matters to Cleveland+ .... Don't Bother Waiting for Washington or Columbus

Kudos to the Cleveland Plain Dealer for its editorial today on Ohio's disappointing broadband report card. A special call out to the analysis and more in depth report by Shaheen Samavatai of the Communication Workers of America's commissioned research report called Speed Matters published two weeks ago.

The blogsphere reported it first. The National Press Club brought a panel together to discuss it and generated a powerpoint and a video. Each year, for the past 6 years the United States finds itself falling further and further behind on three key measures; (1) percentage of the population connected to true broadband (in which several studies show we've gone from 1st to around 20th), (2) the actual broadband speed available to the population in which we've gone from first to about 15th), and (3) the cost of access (in which,on average, consumers in the United States find themselves with among the very most expensive broadband access among the OECD countries). Without pulling punches we pay way too much for way too little and the result is that too few Americans have joined the broadband age. Indeed, in this country, more times than not, we find the debate being whether broadband is a "nice to have" or a "must have" infrastructure investment. While other economies find their national economic productivity increases driven in significant measure by their systematic national policies to build out a national broadband infrastructure, our policy makers have abandoned their leadership responsibilities in favor of being schooled by the misguided curriculum of the incumbent legacy telecommunication operators and their well paid lobbyists. The Speed Matters report makes clear that the private sector alone can not, will not, and even should not be chartered to deliver a national broadband platform. After an unconscionably long delay, some voices within AT&T have finally come public conceding (but not advocating) the need for a national broadband polic. Legislators like Senator Jay Rockefeller's spirited call for a 100 megabit standard by the year 2015 appear to have as much prospect for policy success as President Bush's immigration policy. Remember, today, most Americans can barely count on 1 megabit. The irony, of course, is that effective gold standard in the year 2015 will undoubtedly be 1 gigabit (1000 megabits) a service offering already available in countries like Sweden today for about $100/month.


Alas, I think it is time to abandon efforts at a national policy for broadband. To clarify, I think there is strategic value to continue to advocate for a national broadband policy. However, I have concluded that the tactical battleground needs to move elsewhere. I think it is fair to say that this is the position taken by the thought leaders among technology industry leaders. The Plain Dealer and others influencing the broadband debate in Ohio have attempted to focus attention on Governor Strickland and his administration in Columbus. America needs a small group of highly effective Governors who understand and believe in the absolute necessity of building out a 21st century infrastructure in their states and broader regions. I went to hear Governor Strickland this past week here in Cleveland. I was genuinely impressed with his message. That being said, I was deeply disappointed that his campaign vision for a broadband-enabled Ohio has all but vanished in his message of goals, priorities, and policy efforts. I think Ted Strickland is an honorable and even courageous leader but I don't think there's a chance that he will join the small group of Governors who might lead a state/multi-state centered broadband policy for America. My impression is that he is neither comfortable with nor does he carry a personal conviction that broadband and the Internet is a driver of economic well being and development, educational achievement and success, and sustainability in the 21st century. To underscore this last point. A broadband strategy for Ohio is not only about access (or speed, or price). A broadband policy for Ohio is about understanding the cross boundary portfolio of 'connecting, enabling, and transforming' key policy areas like economic development, education, workforce development, and a strategy for a clean, alternate fuel economy. My observation, from a distance, but still reasonably well informed is that there are very few (perhaps one or two) voices in his cabinet that carry that conviction or insight.

As one who has followed the 6 months of the Strickland administration's activity regarding broadband, the most generous statement that I can muster up is that there is an attempt to realize some statewide savings by battling the state bureaucrats who continue to stubbornly resist building out a single integrated statewide government services network. This represents a waste (potential savings) of several $100m per year. This is a noble effort. It's simply not bold enough nor is it likely to realize the desirable outcome of State-led broadband strategy for Ohio. There are many less charitable insights that one might offer regarding recent legislation and even proposed executive orders related to how public tax payer dollars are being spent (or misspent)in the broadband policy portfolio. While I would hope to witness otherwise, it appears that when it comes to the business of the State in this arena, it is very much business as usual with the usual suspects bellying up to the trough and garnering public tax payer resources and directing policy with either the tacit or explicit consent of the administration. To be sure, the administration deserves credit where credit is due. So far, and as far as I can see, Columbus has neither the vision nor the focus to make a significant contribution to the pursuit of a meaningful broadband Ohio.

So, while the Speed Matters document attempts to shine light on Washington, and the Plain Dealer and others turn to Columbus, I think it is time that we focus on a sustained basis on the prospects for a meaningful, cross boundary broadband portfolio for Cleveland+. For those readers from outside NEOhio, Cleveland+ refers to a regional branding and marketing campaign to mobilize the region including Cleveland, Akron, Canton, and Youngstown. Its the kind of regional boundary extension conversation that is going on across the United States and around the world. Regions are the ideal geographic unit to respond to intensifying global forces. While aligning the interests of politicians to realize the overwhelming consensus of the region's population is a painful and excruciating dance to watch, the truth is that there is no alternative. One day, hopefully soon, the politicians will wake up and realize that inevitably and step up as leaders and reconstitute the governance model.

The future for meaningful cross boundary broadband portfolio activity will be found in regions like Cleveland+ which mobilize and support a community-based regional networking infrastructure (and multiple layers of wireless services) to augment and complement commercial offerings available in the marketplace. One of the models being adopted and adapted all over the world finds its origins in NEOhio's OneCommunity. OneCommunity is a community-owned, non-profit information technology platform that connects Cleveland and NEOhio's public and non-profit institutions with next generation optical network infrastructure (and growing layers of wireless services) to enable enhanced and innovative solutions that are attending to community priorities. OneCommunity's business model is based on partnerships with the private technology sector from global brands like Cisco, IBM, Sun, EMC, Time Warner, and AT&T to regional technology companies and an important subscriber base of health care, university, K-12 school districts, museums, libraries, cities, and other public institutions. The Board of OneCommunity reflects the growing consensus in our region that OneCommunity represents one of the best and bold efforts to leverage broadband to address the highest priorities, the voices, and the choices of the people of NEOhio. OneCommunity also represents the best effort at convening, catalyzing, and building thought leadership on the importance of broadband (access+application portfolio+partnership model). Finally, OneCommunity is a replicable and scalable model as it is delivering today an ultra broadband model that does not aspire to 100 megabits per second in 2015. Today, Case Western Reserve University and many of the other subscribers to OneCommunity enjoy 1 Gigabit speeds in exchanging files, enabling advanced collaboration services between this enormous and growing "intranet" of NEOhio community partners. Indeed, Metro Health has lit up 10 gigabit capacity today representing the gold standard for the region in 2015. Case Western Reserve University's internet bound traffic (outside of the region) is now above 1 Gig and will continue to grow in a cost-effective model.

Finally, a 'loose coalition of the willing' in Cleveland+ has begun a series of new catalytic activities focused on mass collaboration enabled by the pervasive and ubiquitous ultra broadband and wireless services in our region. The current moniker for those activities is being called Cleveland 2.0 and includes an exciting range of activities that again can be replicated and scaled in other community-based initiatives. Following innovative work in the mobile device health education space (which continues), the Cleveland 2.0 coalition is working on a People's Health Portal, a Google Maps project for Education, a focused effort on video-conferencing enabled virtual tutoring for high school student success, the continued build out of the pioneering work to build out Cleveland in SecondLife,and another dozen collaborative applications in the policy areas of health care, education and workforce development, business attraction, social inclusion and digital divide, immigrant attraction, and sustainable economic development.

The efforts in Cleveland+ regarding a broadband portfolio of activities is exemplary. It has been offered to other community-based coalitions and represents to my mind the single best option we have to build a State broadband policy. While the State government works on rationalizing state spending on broadband, it should be encouraged to look at and support Cleveland+ for examples of where community partners can work together to address some of the vexing problems facing the State like high school education and workforce development. While Washington debates immigration and health care, it should be encouraged to look at and support Cleveland+ for examples of where community partners are working together to address next generation electronic health care and health care education. It is unrealistic to expect Washington or Columbus to bring a meaningful broadband policy portfolio to any regional community (like Cleveland+). At the same time, Washington and Columbus must be encouraged to view the efforts in communities like Cleveland+ as being worthy of public investment to complement and augment the private sector activities and the local public and non-profit efforts that are underway. Approaching the investment pattern as a pipeline of activity that can be seeded in the region, grow to a mega-region (like the Great Lakes) and ultimately a national fabric of mega-regions, the United States will enjoy a national broadband policy that at the same time will have been built to meet and address local communities and their respective priorities.


Lev Gonick
Cleveland, Ohio June 30, 2007

Posted by lsg8 at June 30, 2007 05:18 PM and tagged

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