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The White House Broadband Plan

Reading the White House $100 billion broadband plan was a bit eerie because it felt like I could have written it. The plan espouses the same policies that I’ve been recommending. This plan is 180 degrees different than the Congress plan that would fund broadband using a giant federal, and a series of state reverse auctions.

The plan starts by citing the 1936 Rural Electrification Act, which brought electricity to nearly every home and farm in America. It clearly states that “broadband internet is the new electricity” and is “necessary for Americans to do their jobs, to participate equally in school learning, health care, and to stay connected.”

The plan proposes to fund building “future proof’ broadband infrastructure to reach 100 percent broadband coverage. It’s not hard to interpret future proof to mean fiber networks that will last for the rest of the century versus technologies that might not last for more than a decade. It means technologies that can provide gigabit or faster speeds that will still support broadband needs many decades from now.

The plan wants to remove all barriers so that local governments, non-profits, and cooperatives can provide broadband—entities without the motive to jack up prices to earn a profit. The reference to electrification implies that much of the funding for modernizing the network might come in the form of low-interest federal loans given to community-based organizations. This same plan for electrification spurred the formation of electric cooperatives and would do something similar now. I favor this as the best use of federal money because the cost of building the infrastructure with federal loans means that the federal coffers eventually get repaid.

The plan also proposes giving tribal nations a say in the broadband build on tribal lands. This is the third recent funding mechanism that talks about tribal broadband. Most Americans would be aghast at the incredibly poor telecom infrastructure that has been provided on tribal lands. We all decry the state of rural networks, but tribal areas have been provided with the worst of the worst in both wired and wireless networks.

The plan promotes price transparency so that ISPs must disclose the real prices they will charge. This means no more hidden fees and deceptive sales and billing practices. This likely means writing legislation that gives the FCC and FTC some real teeth for ending deceptive billing practices of the big ISPs.

The plan also proposes to tackle broadband prices. It notes that millions of households with access to good broadband networks today can’t use broadband because “the United States has some of the highest broadband prices among OECD countries.” The White House plan proposes temporary subsidies to help low-income homes but wants to find a solution to keep prices affordable without subsidy. Part of that solution might be creating urban municipal, non-profit, and cooperative ISPs that aren’t driven by profits or Wall Street earnings. This goal also might imply some sort of federal price controls on urban broadband—an idea that is anathema to the giant ISPs. Practically every big ISP regulatory policy for the last decade has been aimed at keeping the government from thinking about regulating prices.

This is a plan that will sanely solve the rural broadband gap. It means giving communities time to form cooperatives or non-profits to build broadband networks rather than shoving the money out the door in a hurry in a big reverse auction. This essentially means allowing the public to build and operate its own rural broadband—the only solution I can think of that is sustainable over the long-term in rural markets. Big commercial ISPs invariably are going to overcharge while cutting services to improve margins.

Giving the money to local governments and cooperatives also implies providing the time to allow these entities to be able to do this right. We can’t forget that America’s electrification didn’t happen overnight and took some communities more than a decade to finally build rural electric networks. The whole White House infrastructure plan stretches over 8–10 years—it’s an infrastructure plan, not an immediate stimulus plan.

It’s probably obvious that I love this plan. Unfortunately, this plan has a long way to go to be realized. There is already proposed Congressional legislation that takes nearly the opposite approach, shoving broadband funding out of the door within 18 months in a gigantic reverse auction. We already got a glimpse of how poorly reverse auctions can go in the recently completed RDOF auction. I hope Congress thinks about the White House plan that would put the power back into the hands of local governments and cooperatives to solve the broadband gaps. This plan is what the public needs because it creates broadband networks and ISPs that will still be serving the public well a century from now.

By Doug Dawson, President at CCG Consulting

Dawson has worked in the telecom industry since 1978 and has both a consulting and operational background. He and CCG specialize in helping clients launch new broadband markets, develop new products, and finance new ventures.

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What is definition of "broadband"? Karl Auerbach  –  Apr 7, 2021 12:49 AM

The term “broadband” is lobbed about like a ball in a game of tennis.

But what, specifically, does “broadband” mean?

It certainly must be much more than a number calculated by simple tools such as the popular Ookla Speedtest.  (See my note: Why You Shouldn’t Believe Network Speed Tests)

Any decent definition of “broadband” must encompass things such as packet size (MTU); fixed delay and variable delay (jitter); packet loss, duplication, and re-sequencing rates (and measure of burstiness of those rates); and buffering (for evaluation of bufferbloat effects.)

Some expression of traffic engineering or traffic priorities should also be made.  For instance, it would be good to be able to know if small voice packets could get stuck behind trains of large video frame packets or whether there is some system of fairness or priority.

It would also be useful to understand the party-line dynamics of shared bandwidth - for example, does the coming online of another user on the system result in a reduction in service to the already present users?

By-the-way, “fiber” is not a panacea.  Take a look at the wonderful NANOG presentation by Jared Mauch:

Getting Fiber To My Town (NLNOG Live! September 2020)

And further... Joly MacFie  –  Apr 7, 2021 7:21 AM

...on "What is broadband?". Does it mean High Speed Internet, or Triple Play? Or will these distinctions be moot as everything goes OTT? Is the fiber lit/unlit, open access?

Good question Karl Auerbach  –  Apr 7, 2021 7:46 AM

When I was on the ICANN board I got to chat with many governmental officials. One message that I carried was this: Modify your building codes so that over a span of several years fiber conduit and cable vaults will be incrementally constructed under your streets, including access to a demarcation box on every house and commercial building. (I was thinking conduit - the actual fiber could be blown in later once the build out was complete.) I have heard that there has been an IEEE effort to actually define this sort of thing. And that video by Jarad Mauch shows some of these ideas in practice. We can also learn from things like Google Fiber - and the resistance they met from telcos who owned the telephone poles and did not want competition. (Which reminds me that Facebook had come up with an interesting machine to deploy fiber on utility polls that seemed to avoid some of the issues that Google encountered.) In the US it is likely that Federal legislation would be required to supersede the telco-driven laws in several states that make it difficult (or impossible) for local entities, private or local government, to deploy municipal or regional networks.

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