Bill Coleman and I are in Dallas this week to participate in the Broadband Properties 2010 Summit, “Toward a Fiber-Connected World.” We came to hear from federal NTIA and RUS officials about the FCC’s new National Broadband Plan and also to touch base with others in the Rural Telecommunications Congress’s Broadband Forum. Here are some highlights from the well attended and lively meeting:
Joe Savage, President of the Fiber to the Home Council, shared an overview of fiber deployments world-wide. Founded in 1991, FTTH Council focuses on eliminating barriers to FTTH deployments in America. He reported that the FTTH Council has spawned two “sister councils” – in Europe, and the Asian Pacific. Today, the US has 18 million homes passed with fiber and 8 million subscribers. Europe has 3 million subscribers and Asia Pacific 30 million. That said, the North American market is the fastest growing; subscriptions have doubled in the past two years and are projected to reach 200 million by 2013. South America is seen as the market next best positioned for growth.
We also heard from Rob Curtis, who has been working hard on the development of the National Broadband Plan in his capacity as Director of Network Strategy and Deployment for the FCC. Rob told us his research team has determined that a total of 14 million Americans in 7 million housing units currently do not have access to broadband, as defined by the goals of the new National Plan of 4 Mbps per second down, and 1 Mbps up. His team has calculated the cost of closing this gap to be $24 billion.
Interestingly, he reported that the gaps in availability and the cost of addressing them are very closely aligned – so much so, that it is almost possible to predict cost of deployment from density, and/or density from cost of deployment.
Rob said that serving these unserved 14 million Americans is not going to happen by relying on the market alone. The maps his team has developed show that most places where population densities yield an acceptable ROI on infrastructure investments are being served. Further, his report shows that the 250,000 most expensive to serve households account for about half the $24 billion cost – meaning a per household cost of about $56,000.
“Why should we be concerned about those hard-to-reach households?”, someone asked. “Shouldn’t folks who choose to live at ‘the end of the road’ accept that part of the price of that choice is no broadband connectivity?”
An audience member speculated that if the folks at the end of those roads were offered $50,000 to move, they’d probably turn it down. “Let them drive to the nearest coffee shop with a wireless hot-spot,” someone said. Rob pointed out that the National Broadband Plan doesn’t call for 100 per cent coverage, but rather something short of that, which could significantly reduce the cost of closing the availability gap his research had uncovered.
What’s the likely fate of the National Broadband Plan? FCC staffer Curtis suggested that the recommendations directed at his agency will undoubtedly be easiest to implement, but added that very intentional efforts are being made to seed plan supporters across federal agencies with a key role to play in the plan’s success, including at Transportation and HUD.
A number of other fairly high level federal officials attended the conference, including Jonathan Adelstein, Administrator of the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) and Anne Neville, Director of NTIA’s National Broadband Mapping Program. They were engaged, active listeners, as well as presenters. No doubt they were gratified to hear, both in the corridors and in more formal settings, the many people who echoed the observation by Appalachian Regional Commission’s Telecommunications Initiative Manager, Mark DeFalco, that “This administration has a very strong focus on wanting to solve the broadband problem.” DeFalco’s comments reflected a palpable sense I picked up that many summit participants view the federal government as an ally, not an adversary, in this work.
What is Broadband? The Rural Telecommunication Congress portion of the meeting opened with this question. Like many other economic development entities and policy bodies, Blandin Foundation has grappled with this problem from the very beginning of our broadband initiative. After months of work to agree on a number, our Broadband Strategy Board finally gave up, and approved a vision statement for our overall initiative that instead used the language of “ultra high speed.”
Penn State University extension educator Bill Shuffstall asked for a show of hands of those in the room who don’t have broadband. No one raised their hand. Then someone asked, “How do you define broadband?” After the knowing laughter died down, Bill bravely said, “Broadband is not a number. It’s having the capability to do what you want to do when you want to do it.” Lots of folks nodded, and I thought about how his formula is pretty close to where we’ve landed on that at Blandin as well – we say that communities define for themselves what level of broadband service they need.
Leon Conner, Executive Director of the Southern George Regional Information Technology Authority, had a slightly edgier formula: “Broadband equals efficient access to information. Information is knowledge, and knowledge is power.”
Like a red thread, the ongoing need to educate policy makers and the public about the benefits of broadband was a theme throughout the meeting. Richard Lowenberg, founder of the 1st Mile Institute in Santa Fe (which he describes as a “think (and do) tank”), called for a more integrated, cross-sectoral approach to this challenge, one that brings together people from transportation, medicine, energy, farming, education, health care –all the many sectors that can benefit from broadband enabled technology.
Brent Legg from Connected Nations, which has been awarded the contract to create Minnesota’s broadband map, agreed that local leadership teams are key for bringing broadband to hard-to-serve places. I thought to myself how Blandin’s approach of creating and supporting cross sectoral leadership teams at the community level has born this out.
Extension educator Shuffstall called for more learning, in addition to more top-down educating. Learning requires innovation, which implies a willingness to try stuff that may not work. If you are going to be a learner, you need to be ready to fail.
The need for local technology planning was another theme of the meeting. Attendees pointed out that other key infrastructure sectors – water, sewer, roads, land use – all benefit from ongoing – often mandated – planning efforts. But because in the U.S. broadband is still regarded as private (not public) infrastructure, deployment decisions are market-based, and the community voice is often missing.
Broadband as “essential infrastructure.” Many participants in the RTC called for broadband to be designated as “essential infrastructure.” Galen Updike, Telecom Development Manager for the State of Arizona, pointed out that the designation would help remove right-of-way barriers to deployment. David Villano, Assistant Administrator for RUS’ Telecommunications Program seemed to agree when he called broadband an “essential tool for the future of human resource and economic development in our nation.”
The rural/urban divide is here to stay. ARC’s Mark DeFalco called the rural/urban broadband access gap an “economic issue, pure and simple.” Mark characterized the high cost/low density problem of rural deployments a “problem in search of a solution,” and said that he sees the Federal Broadband Plan as the roadmap to that solution.
Many participants seemed to agree that it is unrealistic to expect rural/urban parity. While the Federal Broadband Plan calls for 100 Mbps to be available to 100 million American households by 2020, they are unlikely to be rural households. Arizona’s Updike hastened to add that while it may be unrealistic to expect rural/urban access parity, that doesn’t mean that rural needs are less – they are just more challenging to meet.
What is the role for state government in all of this? NTIA’s Anne Neville suggested that an important role of states is to create incentives for state agencies break out of their silos and to understand that “thinking broadband” is part of their core mission.
Otto Doll, CIO for the State of South Dakota, said flatly, “You need to prove that you’re going to make their lives simple and save money. Unless you can do both, they’re not that ready to listen.”
The charismatic Graham Richard, former Mayor of Ft. Wayne Indiana (and, I’m proud to say, a former keynoter at one of Blandin’s annual broadband conferences), was also the keynote speaker here. He wowed the audience with his story of how he leveraged broadband technology to turn Ft. Wayne city government into a lean, results-producing, citizen-focused driver of an economically thriving city – a story he captured in his book, “Performance is the Best Politics.”
Mayor Richard’s core message was also about the power of local leadership to drive change. His challenge to the audience (and I felt he was looking directly at me as he said it): “convene, connect, collaborate.” We’ll be trying to do a lot of that as we implement our Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities BTOP grant.