Broadband stimulus package explained by Yochai Benkler

Here's Yochai Benkler, one of the smartest people I know on the subject of policy and the Internet, talking about the broadband stimulus package in the US, and what effect it is likely to have. You can't tell the players without a scorecard, and this is that scorecard -- for example, did you know that the House proposal would give half the broadband money to the Secretary of Agriculture to spend (!?). Still, this looks like a remarkably sane and effective proposal. Good news for America.
The House bill also adds some explicit important definitions for understanding broadband. It defines "advanced broadband," for which 75% of the money is marked, as 45 Mbps downstream, 15 Mbps downstream. Now, I continue to be baffled about the willingness to formalize asymmetric speeds as the measure, but this is the first time any formal regulatory requirement has even begun to speak in 21st century terms about what counts as broadband. (The requirements from wireless and basic broadband are, as might be expected, lower, but still better than used now by the FCC.) These numbers will almost certainly anchor any future debate over the state of broadband deployment, which, in turn, could also affect the FCC's powers and responsibilities across all its broadband policy, including systems not funded by the stimulus. It also funds the NTIA to build capacity to actually study and benchmark broadband availability and performance, and requires the FCC to issue a broad strategic plan, within a year, for broadband deployment and use in the United States. The Senate bill, although it was stronger on the amount of money and the centralization of responsibility in the NTIA, is weaker and more vague on the access provisions. Still, it gives the NTIA the power to impose on any facilities at least partly funded by the stimulus funds conditions for interconnection and nondiscrimination. This is more vague. "Interconnection" can be interpreted much more narrowly than "open access," and "nondiscrimination" is looser than the direct reference to the FCC's policy. But together with the concentration of the 9 billion dollars in its hands, and the requirement that recipients of the funds do so through partnership with a state or municipality, this power will give the NTIA a much more powerful and interesting regulatory role than it has had in the past, in a context where we might actually see systems built with these funds in fact offer more open systems than those that the incumbents have been trying to build over the last few years. The Senate bill is also the first serious effort to invest in skills training and connecting the availability of physical infrastructure to programs to teach people how to use the systems. An incredibly important, and oft ignored, facet of the problem.
Broadband Stimulus (via Isen)

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  1. Maybe conservatives can come on board if it is put in certain words. If you compare any public works to FDR, they will Balk. But if you mention Hoover and TVA or Eisenhower and the Highway system, they might come around. Also frame it in the necessary terms of the USAs standings in deployed bandwidth, how we need to be number one again.

  2. Because, you know, the last time we gave a shitload of money to the Telcos to build out their broadband infrastructure went so well

  3. Exactly right #1.
    Giving money to the telcos is as stupid as giving money to the banks.

    If throwing government (i.e. taxpayor) money at the problem is a foregone conclusion, a vastly superior alternative is to subsidize local / municipal laying of fibre optic loops to the curb, and then allow ISPs to compete for using that fibre to deliver Internet connectivity, which should settle at about 100Mbps up and down for about $15-20/month.

    At least fibre optic loops are a legitimate infrastructure investment like roads and sewer.

    p.s. Verizon FiOS has already had 20Mbps upload bandwidth (namely, 20/20 symmetric) since January 2008. They had 15Mbps upload since 2005. Of course, paying back private investment for laying fibre PONs has the price for that at $65/month.

  4. I’m consistently shocked at how unimportant an issue this is to most people, given that real broadband for real prices (100/100 for $15-20 sounds about right) would open up entire new and as yet undiscovered industries.

    The Japanese model is the only model that makes sense. In fact, its really one of the only economic stimulus options that make sense.

  5. It’s not that strange that the Department of Agriculture gets the money. The program is called the Rural Utilities Service. It is a program that was created in the early 30’s to expand the reach of electricity. See, stringing copper out to every home in the US is a very expensive project, and some houses are so far out there that nobody could, economically, run power to them. So, since the power companies couldn’t/wouldn’t do it, the Federal Govt decided to subsidize these efforts and offer federal funding and low-interest loans to companies who would do this. A similar model was adopted for the telephone infrastructure. It has helped many folks get service where they wouldn’t have before. I admit, that the Department of Agriculture doesn’t seem a logical place to put it, but when you see that they have 75 years of experience with this, it should be a little more comforting. I happen to think that the 45/15 rate is a fantastic contemporary package – that’s VDSL2, which would provide recipients the ability to stream 3 HD channels, and more than cover all your surfing, voice, and file transfers. Not bad – I think this money will help with expansion of service, and increased quality of service. $9Billion would buy 220M lines of data service, without operational/deployment costs, but if you imagine it as only serving to provide the hardware/software to provide the service, and the service providers simply had to manage the installation and operation, that’s a pretty sweet deal – and would give almost every person in the US access to triple play services. I’m for it!

  6. “45 Mbps downstream, 15 Mbps downstream” Is this a typo? Should one of these (15 Mbps) be up-stream?

  7. I happen to think that the 45/15 rate is a fantastic contemporary package – that’s VDSL2

    “Contemporary” meaning that by the time it’s finally implemented (years later), it’ll already be obsolete. 100Mbps symmetric is a sane target; check out the Web100 Project.

    See, stringing copper out to every home in the US is a very expensive project, and some houses are so far out there that nobody could, economically, run power to them. So, since the power companies couldn’t/wouldn’t do it, the Federal Govt decided to subsidize these efforts and offer federal funding and low-interest loans to companies who would do this.

    Which is how we get monopolies for telecoms and electricity. (c.f. universalservice)

    The problem is that government lacked foresight that distributed generation would be a reality, and of course now our centrally managed spoke-and-hub power grid can’t handle it.

    We could also have wireless distributed broadband if the FCC were pressured into adopting open spectrum for software-defined cognitive radio.

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