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Geoff Daily

App-Rising.com covers the development and adoption of broadband applications, the deployment of and need for broadband networks, and the demands placed on policy to adapt to the revolutionary opportunities made possible by the Internet.

App-Rising.com is written by Geoff Daily, a DC-based technology journalist, broadband activist, marketing consultant, and Internet entrepreneur.

App-Rising.com is supported in part by AT&T;, however all views and opinions expressed herein are solely my own.

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August 5, 2008 8:47 AM

Chairman Martin: Let's Be Realistic About The Potential Of Free Wireless Broadband

I've been reading a lot lately about FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's desire to create competition and bridge the digital divide in the broadband marketplace through wireless broadband. More specifically, he has his sights set on auctioning off wireless spectrum and mandating the winner deploy free wireless broadband delivering speeds of at least 768Kbps to 95% of the country in the next 10 years.

While I'm all for finding new ways to spur deployment, increase availability, and generally move our country's broadband infrastructure forward, I think we need to be realistic about the merits of a plan like this.

First off, Martin seems to think there's a proven business model in offering free, ad-supported service, but last I checked isn't that the same model that's credited with bringing about the failure of municipal wireless initiatives across the country? My general understanding is that at least to date, free and ad-supported broadband has not yet proven to be a self-sustaining model in cities, so how can we expect that it will be the silver bullet for fixing our broadband woes across the entire country?

Secondly, while free service could be great, just because it's free doesn't mean people will be able to use it as you still need a computer, the appropriate modem or network card for accessing the wireless network, and a sufficient enough understanding of how the computer and the Internet works to actually do something with it once all the technological pieces are in place. As I've said before and will say again and again: deployment is only half the battle, we also need to address adoption and use.

Third, I can't help but chuckle at the thought of our goal being to enable universal "broadband" at 768Kbps in a decade. Think about 10 years ago. It was 1998 and dialup was still the norm. Now it's hard to imagine how people survived with so little speed, and already today 768Kbps seems pretty pathetic, so what good are those kinds of speeds going to be in 10 years? Will having free 768Kbps available everywhere be worth anything when the leading broadband countries are well on their way to universal 1Gbps?

Fourth, I'm a bit flabbergasted that even with these slow speeds and with the express intent of enabling universal access that we can't set the goal of 100% deployment. The whole challenge we face is not in getting broadband everywhere, it's finding a way to cover that last 5-10% of America that private carriers don't find economical to deploy in. I know the economics are ugly, but simply ignoring 5% of the country is roughly equivalent to saying an area the size of Montana just doesn't matter when it comes to bringing America into the 21st century.

Fifth, there's been talk that this free wireless broadband network would also be weighted down with the burden of enabling smut-free service that actively blocks pornographic and other inappropriate materials. This idealism is troubling on many fronts:

- Who defines what's appropriate and inappropriate? Would a family photo of a shirtless child be considered child pornography?

- Any time you start talking about filtering anything, you're adding expense and complexity, and often service will suffer. You can't talk about filtering as an abstract good without acknowledging what it will take to implement that ideal.

- Let's be frank: one of the most successful killer apps for getting people to use broadband is porn. I'm not necessarily saying we should be promoting porn, but if the goal is to get people to use the Internet more, then it will be counterproductive to limit their access to one of the most proven ways of getting people interested in going online.

So in the end, while I support Chairman Martin's ideals of finding a way to enable universal access, we have to be realistic about the impact of a plan to try and spur the deployment of free, slow, and not quite universally available access to wireless broadband.

This will not be a silver bullet for broadband, and before we commit to following through on it let's make sure that we're spending our time, money, and energy in the most appropriate way. We can't let idealism get in the way of reality when it comes to plotting out our country's broadband future.

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