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April 04, 2009

Freedom to Connect: The Technorati Tackle Broadband Stimulus

This week, the annual Freedom to Connect conclave (or should I say cabal) took place in suburban Washington organized by the erudite and remarkably wired and connected David Isenberg.

I was priviledged to be part of the kickoff panel anchored by Joanne Hovis, President of CTC Columbia Telcommunications Corporation and lead researcher on fiber to the premise projects in San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and a half a dozen important initiatives (including hopefully one here in NEOhio really soon). The panel featured, Dirk van der Woude from Amsterdam, Bill Schrier CTO, Seattle, Tim Nulty of East Central Vermont, and me representing Case Western Reserve University as a model of Digital Campus to Connected OneCommunity.

The conversation was wide ranging but focused on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Stimulus) and its relevance to broadband and in particular to NTIA and the USDA RUS program for rural connectivity. There has been a lively set of exchanges following the conference suggesting once again that the best events are often times those that are generative and catalyze ongoing conversations. Outlined below is an edited contribution that I made to the conference listserv of some 250 persons.

There are too few enlightened ISPs in the US context, a context which is sans a national broadband policy framework. Indeed, not only do we not have a national policy we also do not enjoy state-wide or even regional policies for deploying broadband in the public interest where we have seen market failures. We are, as the technorati and cognoscendi in the F2C community know, among the very few advanced economies with a broadband-free policy framework. The result is that we have relatively arcane business plans for provisioning data services (which today and moving forward is the delivery platform for a convergence of data bits, telephony, and video services). It's a bit of a red-herring to suggest that the opposite of free is individual subscriber bills in this country that are as much as 100 times the $/Mbit as other international service providers who are not only providing 'consumer' experiences at $125-$140/Gigabit, but institutional and commercial services that are being sized at $/10 Gig and now $/40 Gig drains to intranets and to the broader internet cloud. As long as the public and 'in the family' debate is delimited to hand ringing around symmetrical 100 megabit/sec services without a broader framework for a national or at least regional ultrabroadband, I'm afraid we will fail to be answering the real challenge because we are posing the wrong question.

In the research and education community across this country we enjoy, through significant public investment, a national backbone infrastructure that is now measured in 10Gig and by the end of the year in 40Gig pipes connecting everything from some of the most advanced research labs in the world to the pillow tops in the dorm rooms across the land. The networks are well architected, built, and operated by some of the best and the brightest. The price per megabit/sec is well below $10 when aggregated which is a true fraction of the leased line costs being offered in the so-called competitive T1/DS3 or E3 space. If we're interested in leveraging this massive public investment of the NSF, DOE, NIH, and the Departments of Education, Economic Development, and Research and Development of well over 25 States (and their respective Governor's Offices), we have the basis for an American National Backbone for Public Access. Not withstanding the bias of many of my colleagues and peers, these research and education networks should not be (can not be) set aside for formal education and research activity only. The eco-system of education extends to public broadcasting, museums, libraries, health care organizations and of course the entire spectrum of pre-K-20.

Moving from digital campuses to connected communities is, in the first instance, re-framing the most basic questions around how the public should gain access to the network. Until and unless we do so, we're going to have ill informed policies informing the consumer choices we face leading to bizarre and retrogressive practices of 'capping'.

This is not to suggest that there are no rational pure market businesses. Another, and potentially complimentary approach is to call on savvy and forward thinking Governors to work with the Presidents and CIOs of our 3500 Universities and College across the land (along with our national research and education network carriers) to establish a robust fabric for a national public ultrabroadband backbone. The POPs and inter-connect points on that fabric can connect a wide range of public institutions that touch the daily lives of American citizens and in turn serve as the backhaul for new public investment in Fiber to the Premise (including households) to service and enable to models of home health care delivery, schooling, retraining, child care support, home and local community economic programs. As we are actively exploring here, the excess capacity of that public network for public good can be provided/leased/condominiumized to private service providers who will deliver layered consumer goods (in contrast to public goods) based on subscriber interests and new service offerings. Layered over all the fiber can and should be multiple wireless services which can, if appropriate, follow the same business logic of supporting public access as well private services.

In cities like Cleveland and many many other cities across this country, the very last things we need (want) is restrictions on bandwidth informed by narrow and 'national' business models. If our community is to re-imagine itself as being more than a ghost of our rust-belt self, we must, indeed we have no choice, but to grow the availability and consumption of bandwidth throughout the region, and indeed, across the entire Great Lakes economy between Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh (and beyond). As I have been sharing (with those interested in listening) I am pretty sure we can't get there from here through the private market solutions alone. The time and place for public investment is where we see demonstrable and structural market failures. Those public investments should not be made to lock out the private sector but rather, as we have seen time and again through out our economic history (and the broadband economies of Europe and Asia today), public investment should be made in the public interest AND as enabler of innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship.

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, Ohio
April 4, 2009

Posted by lsg8 at April 4, 2009 11:43 AM and tagged

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