Thursday, July 09, 2009

Rural Broadband Stimulus Hopes To One-Up Dial-up

Just before the 4th of July holiday, the long-anticipated rural broadband stimulus funding was launched with release of the official government "Notice of Funds Availability (NOFA) and solicitation of applications."

If you want to get in on the action, you best get a move on. Applications are only being accepted between July 14 and August 14 of this year, 2009.

As a potential user rather than a provider of broadband services, you'll have to wait awhile longer before you can expect a nearby on-ramp to drive your buggy onto the information superhighway. Yes, buggy not sports car. If you've been eagerly anticipating FTTF (Fiber to the Farmstead), you may find the definition of broadband a bit disheartening. The bar has been set at a breathtaking speed of 768 Kbps download and 200 Kbps upload to meet the criteria of "broadband" Internet service.

Why such a poky broadband standard when AT&T and Verizon are slugging it out to see who can deliver 50 & 100 Mbps to the most residential users where their U-verse and FiOS services, respectively, are in a feverish construction phase? Simply because some people way-out-there are lucky to get 56 Kbps dial-up modem service on their telephone line. The idea is to get universal digital service in the same way that we've finally gotten universal telephone service and rural electrification.

The one difference is that electricity and telephone service standards are the same everywhere. There isn't one set of standards for city dwellers and another for those in the boonies. But broadband is a different animal. It's always been tiered service, with those who live in denser populated areas and willing to pay more getting to go first class.

Perhaps this is the natural difference between mandated universal service and the workings of the competitive marketplace. I've argued before that broadband should be treated like a utility. Even more than that, it should be considered a strategic infrastructure for the country. Broadband is a lot more than the amusement value of YouTube and Twitter. It's about the commercial value of online shopping, working remotely, and creating value with new Web services. It's about the educational importance of having an immense library at your fingertips that would have stunned Andrew Carnegie, as valuable as the bricks and mortar libraries he donated were to earlier generations. It's about the democracy of collaboration to advocate for a cause or support a political candidate on the other side of the state or the country.

The commercial marketplace will never be all-inclusive. It's profit driven. Where the numbers look good, the infrastructure will be built and the head-to-head competition will be brutal. Areas where the population is too thin to recover capital costs in a timely manner are simply passed over. You can see this today even with cellular phone service. In the city there may be a carrier branded cell phone store on nearly every corner. But drive out where the highway turns into a cow path and you'll find gaping holes in the service footprint. No bars in these places unless they're country taverns.

The opportunity that may be missed here is the chance to lift the entire population to a new plateau. That may sound a bit fanciful, but consider the downward slope we've been on as a society from our post-WWII productivity and world dominance high. The national debt is through the roof. The auto industry nearly died this summer. The banking system had to be brought back from death's door this spring. Anyone looking to "upgrade" their house or job this year? Hanging-on is the new moving up.

We've been told repeatedly by industry and government officials that we're competing in a new world marketplace. Just what tools do we have to compete with? If this is the long anticipated information age, many of us are going to miss it. We going to miss the knowledge jobs. We're going to miss the massive productivity multiplier that instantaneous collaboration offers. We're going to miss the opportunity to live where it's beautiful and still participate in the 21st century economy. We're going to miss the next leg up in technological progress that will be based on video instead of text. We're going to miss it because 768 Kbps is a pittance, not a stimulus.

Hopefully, the minimum will not become the standard and the builders of the rural broadband initiative will exceed expectations, giving us something of real value for our $7.2 billion. Perhaps your company will be one of those that wins a grant to trench fiber or put up a WiMAX tower. If so, I hope you'll think big and set the performance standard high. As a society on the edge, we truly need the best you can possibly do.

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