September 10, 2009

Time for Higher Education To Step Up on National Broadband Strategy

Blair Levin is a man on a mission with a major Tylenol three headache. Levin's day job these days is Executive Director of the Omnibus Broadband Initiative for the USA. He has less than 160 days to deliver a national framework. The challenges are considerable. The broadband czar is not hiding his angst.

We are looking for creative solutions from everyone – government, think tanks, spectrum license holders, wireline providers, cable systems – that will help deliver the synergies of broadband to the entire nation. ... we need everyone to be, shall we say, “constructively worried”. So let’s be creative and find a solution together so that five years from now we don’t have to worry about the ramifications of our failure to plan ahead.

More recently, he added, "It is striking how the parties [in broadband comments] have stayed within the same framework in looking at a problem that is evolving; seeing things only in the light of long-established patterns that are tied to preferred policy outcomes, not analysis."

I have had limited direct exposure to the inner workings of this effort but I have a wide range of trusted colleagues who are actively and tirelessly working to constructively engage and position the Omnibus Broadband Initiative for advancing the birthing of national broadband policy for the United States.

Given the historic opportunity, in view of the national need, because this is so important to the future, it is high time for higher education to become actively and constructively engaged in the national broadband policy making effort. The futurists in academe have offered their crystal balls to the FCC panels. Higher education, and in particular our research and education networks, have much, much more to offer. In turn, we have much to gain from active and constructive engagement with Levin. Hyperbole aside, this may be the single most important moment in the Internet's short history to reposition the future of the era which I think future historians will rightly call the Broadband Epoch. I have no doubt that our research and education networks will be around 25 years from now. I think we should be recasting the question and ask 'how relevant will our research and education networks be' if we continue to think, build, and operate a national and regional set of shadow network infrastructures as in 'our interest' somehow separate from the 'national interest'.

The time has come to offer leadership and commitment to contribute to the designing and ultimately build out an integrated national broadband fabric. We should begin by placing our coveted publicly-funded research and education networks on the table as the foundation of a national public broadband infrastructure. We should offer up the billion plus dollar State and Federally funded investments in the more than 30 regional optical networks in 37 states, reaching more than 55,000 community institutions. We should offer up our two national backbone services in Internet2 and NLR with investments totaling well in excess of another quarter of a billion dollars over the past decade. The infrastructure assets entrusted to and built by higher education over the past twenty years are the single most important catalytic resource available to the nation in the pursuit of a national public broadband strategy.

Ed Lazowska from the University of Washington in Seattle outlines the tradition of innovation and the contribution of higher education to our nascent and current broadband state as a nation in a submission to the Department of Commerce (in the context of NTIA Broadband Technology Opportunity Program).

Colleges and universities are innovation incubators. They brought us ARPANET in the 1970’s, the Internet in the 1980’s, the graphical World Wide Web browser in the 1990’s, and Google and Facebook in the current decade. These and other transformative innovations from America’s colleges and universities have generated countless millions of jobs and countless billions of dollars in economic growth, making America the world leader in information technology. We would not be here today, were it not for these engines of innovation.

College and university applications drive advances in networking. These institutions are the heart of demanding, advanced scientific applications. The data-driven experiments, simulations, and analyses of science today require high-speed broadband to move data from remote instruments to the lab and to share massive data sets among scientists globally. Why does this matter? Because these scientists will help us model climate change, discover genetic markers for inherited diseases, and explore the potential of low carbon and renewable energy sources. Colleges and universities are also the source of innovation in America’s health care system, providing cutting-edge health research, medical education, clinical care, and rural telemedicine. The bandwidth demands of today’s advanced scientific applications – tens of gigabits per second – foreshadow similar bandwidth needs in homes and businesses in the future.

Colleges and universities have a four-decade proven track record in deploying, managing, operating, and continually upgrading advanced networks. With seed money from NSF in the 1980’s and 1990’s, CSNET, NSFNET, and Internet2....provided neutral territory for open, non-proprietary, unclassified advances, fostering close partnerships with and among industry and government and across all sectors ranging from education to health care....

Two lines of questioning emerge. Why and how could the Higher Education network infrastructure become the basis of a national public broadband framework. Second, why and how would Higher Education leverage these stewarded infrastructure assets in support of the research and education mission of their respective organizations and the national imperative for research and development a global competitiveness.

First, the debate in Washington on the future of broadband is bounded by the view from 'inside the beltway'. Make no mistake about it, as intelligent, objective, and visionary as the FCC and the architects of the Omnibus Broadband Planners may well be, policy making is the extension of politics and interests by other means (to bastardize von Clausewtiz's well known idiom about war). As Levin notes in his comments quoted above, much of the policy debate and thought leadership is bounded by what "is" and the inherited sense of "self interest" which leads to a pervasive condition of incremental and bounded policy making. The future vision of the policy possibilities are extensions of and highly constrained to what we see in our rear view mirrors. Those charged with policy development end up being self-hostaged to their perception of the limits of the policy options as articulated by the delimited set of self-interested parties.

Second, America's research and education networks offer an existent proof point of a very different vision of the future of broadband. Ours is an integrated, national, regional, and local set of inter-connected advanced network infrastructures built to advance a public services set of needs and requirements. Today, a wide range of education research, learning, teaching, and outreach activity is supported on the only truly globally competitive broadband infrastructure in the country. It is globally competitive not because of the size of the bandwidth pipes. It is competitive because the range of educational research and development services, educational learning technologies, educational teaching innovation, and the abundance of Net-based education experimentation is world class.

Third, the public services platform can be and should be extended as part of an integrated effort to extend to a vibrant and transformative set of network-based activities ready for take off in the health and wellness eco-system. Our national broadband policy should aspire to leverage network-enabled health and wellness technologies and services to create efficiencies and to service the nation's diverse and multi-faceted health and wellness agenda for the 21st century. If health care and wellness follow the higher education network deployment architecture we will have a world-class infrastructure not because of the size of the pipes (or the number of lambda waves we light up). We will be competitive because health research activities, consumer and public health education technologies, health and wellness advocacy and a wide range of health economic efficiencies will make our integrated public services platform second to none in the world.

A national broadband policy which does not begin and remain constrained with the assumption of an incumbent-only provider set of policy options can include not only education and health care but also our national interest in energy management both across the grid and within communities and neighborhoods across the country. An integrated public services grid can and should include a strategy for not only network-based and home-attached utility readers to support the objectives of efficiency on the energy grids. Energy management can and should extend through a smart-home sensor network to enable household energy management. If energy management, designed as end-to-end energy management follow the higher education network deployment model we will have a world-class infrastructure not because of the number of smart grids or the size and speed of our grids. We will be competitive because energy research in both the commercial and university labs will be integrated with consumer and public energy management education technologies in home, integrated education programs, and a wide range of energy management sensor-based technologies that will make our integrated energy management the most innovative and consequential to Americans from coast to coast to coast.

There are additional public sector services, such as public and neighborhood safety, environmental and home health, smart and connected public and private real estate, and transportation grids that together with education, health, and energy form the basis for an integrated and public national broadband future. Our broadband future becomes informed by a national consensus to build, manage, and operate a smart, green, and connected infrastructure to service the needs of communities both urban and rural, aged and young, rich and impoverished, new immigrant or well established families. The architecting of a public services network can leverage and scale on the foundation of the research and education networks that touch tens of thousands of communities across the country. The new 21st century community emerges as an integrated, dynamic eco-system whose DNA is knowledge and innovation in support of and delivering against articulated community needs.

The broadband policy debate about our future must extend beyond the rear view mirror image of current 'triple play' services offering. Architecting next generation ultra broadband connectivity is a necessary but insufficient condition for a globally competitive America. Becoming globally competitive is not a debate about whether incumbent providers do or do not provide broadband services to America's underserved. Serving America's needs today and tomorrow is intertwined with advancing and sustaining an open and inherently generative platform that continues to enable innovation and unconstrained experimentation. The threads interwoven with the platform will hopefully be an integrated approach to providing broadband services for education, health care, energy management, public safety and so on. The broadband technical requirements are an extension of, not a substitute for, our common vision of a smart, green, and connected future.

Some might well ask, why should the research and education networks place their assets into national play? How does an integrated public sector platform advance the dynamic and important network-based research activities that are the raison d'etre of our networks? R&E networks is one of relatively few things in the national and globally competitive broadband space that we can proud of. Why screw it up and let our relative advantage devolve into a dumbed down version of, fill in the blank's, commercial provider service? There are probably a dozen other expressions of cynicism, horror, and disbelief. At the very moment that the R&E community is driving towards a new 100 Gig national backbone standard, why at this very moment would we want to 'give it away'.

First, our networks are public networks. They have been funded with public tax dollars and entrusted to higher education. By and large, we have been good stewards of that investment and created leveragable value. Second, we need not 'give it away' our access to commodity, research and development, and experimental use of the networks. The governance authority for provisioning tiered public access from institutions, consumers (outside their institutional relationships), and commercial users is both attainable and can and will lead to win-win-win scenarios. Third, the University's sphere of influence and interests continue to bleed well beyond the confines of the University's physical plant footprint. Fourth, our long term health and well being is intimately and perhaps inextricably linked to the well being and health of the communities around us. And fifth, and finally, it is in on our selfish and narrow interests to be part of, rather than separate and apart from, the single most important set of investments in broadband in our generation.

To be sure, it is possible that our siloed approach to securing broadband network funding from NSF, NIH, DOE, and so forth might have some short term legs. However, there is growing evidence that, at least under this administration, there is an effort to orchestrate, coordinate, and leverage major policy objectives, especially in the infrastructure arena. Working together, we should be able to make the case that it may well be within the institutional self interest of the federal funding agencies to also join and lock arms in trying to work with one another, as well as the FCC, Commerce, and the White House on an integrated approach to public sector investments in broadband. Making an effort to align Federal and State agency interests, higher education research interests, and the interests of the provider and managers of the higher education network infrastructure is as difficult as it is important if we are to keep an eye on the challenge facing Blair Levin and the nation as a whole.

Finally, a word about the incumbent carriers and the presumed insurmountable interests of the telecommunications industry. Advancing the cause of a next generation ultra broadband public services platform is not antithetical to the interests and position of the incumbent providers. The notion of binary choices between the incumbent provider or a public services platform is a framing that is simply false. Many off the record conversations with leaders within the telecommunications industry suggest that the 'either/or' framing is simply 'more of the same political posturing'. Indeed, there is overwhelming evidence that the telecom industry will continue to pursue the "Janus" approach of breathing fire on anything smacking of public sector investments in the public policy 'dialog' while, turning around, presenting a willingness and interest to advance collaborative approaches to public and private investments to reach new communities and to enable new services. Embracing that ambiguity is an art form, especially when it is underwritten with very substantial financial resources and long standing political influence. An integrated public services platform will create new dynamics in the marketplace. As long as there remains a commitment to an open and neutral network platform, there will be competition, innovation, and service options to the consuming public. That's generally thought to be a good thing.

It is quite reasonable to assume that there will not be consensus on every last detail of an advanced, ultra broadband future for the United States. There is, however, plenty of evidence that there is significant consensus on many of the goals, including a portfolio of approaches to investment, adoption, use, and accountability. The time for higher education and in particular the higher education regional optical networks and the national backbone providers to engage in the effort to design a comprehensive broadband strategy is now. We should do so because we have much to offer. We should do so because we have much to gain.

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, OH
September 12, 2009

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