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March 25, 2009 9:06 AM

NTIA/RUS Not Requiring A Minimum Speed Is Absurd

More than anything else, what's gotten me most upset watching the NTIA/RUS public meetings has been the oft-repeated stance that somehow it'd be a bad thing for a minimum speed to be set in order to qualify for a government grant.

The argument goes something like this: "Well if you set the bar too high you'll dissuade investment and cut a number of providers out of the running to upgrade their networks."

First off, for anyone to claim that the government's going to have any trouble finding people to give money away to is absolutely ridiculous. I don't see how anyone can suggest this as a real problem with a straight face.

Secondly, if by setting a higher bar for minimum speeds we shut out lesser "broadband" projects, how is that a bad thing? If by demanding more on behalf of the public we force private interests to step outside of their comfort zone of incremental investments to bring real broadband to Americans, why is that a bad thing?

Now I do need to step back for a second and point out that anyone arguing against a minimum speed threshold does have a point that mandating what Internet speeds are made available to consumers may not be a good idea. The reason for this is that the cost of delivering that service varies across the country based on the cost of backhaul Internet access. So if we're not careful we can break the economics of broadband deployment to the point where we may be hindering the establishment of sustainable businesses.

But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The high cost of backhaul is really more relevant to higher speeds than lower. So saying that only projects that deliver at least 1Mbps symmetrical at an affordable price should not be such an onerous requirement as to make deployment uneconomical.

And there's another way to think about speed: that of in-network capacity. Rather than base everything on Internet access, which is a specific service with costs outside of those associated with building the network, let's set some minimum capacity requirements for the networks themselves in order to avoid subsidizing networks that'll have to be overbuilt every few years to keep up with demand.

Taking a step back for a moment again, I will say that if in order to get the large swathes of America that are currently unserved connected we have to lower this minimum, I'm not against that. We can't let the perfect get in the way of the good. But this principle should only narrowly apply to those without any service in areas where no project offering greater speeds has stepped up to the table.

Otherwise I think it's a mistake to not establish minimum speeds both because it does an injustice to the American people by not investing in infrastructure with the capacity to support future demands and for the simple fact that by cutting down on the number of eligible applications it will make life easier for NTIA and RUS.

And if setting this minimum leaves some companies out of the running, so be it! Quite frankly, we shouldn't care about everyone getting an equal shot at these grants. That'd be like a "feed the starving kids in Africa" program going out of its way to make sure that someone with a warehouse full of Twinkies can qualify for government grants. Sure it's food but can we responsibly say that it's what's best for those kids?

Again, we can't let private interests supersede the public good. We must be vigilant in insuring whatever projects get these government funds worry more about supporting what's best for the public than on protecting private interests. And the best way to do this is by setting a minimum speed threshold to establish eligibility for these broadband grants.

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