May 2009 Archives

A New Twist on Technological Neutrality

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I'll have more commentary on the FCC's recently released rural broadband strategy report in the coming days but I wanted to start by pointing out one thing in there that really stood out to me.

The most common refrain heard in formulating broadband policy is the need to maintain a strict regime of technological neutrality. The reasoning for this is threefold:

- Government shouldn't be picking technology winners and losers.
- Each community has different needs and characteristics requiring different technologies.
- Technology changes at such a rapid pace anything we pick will soon be outdated.

Instead of spending time now refuting these misguided principles, I want to pick out something I found notable related to this topic in the FCC's report, namely:

"Nevertheless, every technology has inherent capabilities and limitations. Those characteristics vary greatly among technologies. Similarly, every rural area presents its own special challenges, and a particular technological solution may be well-suited to one situation and poorly-suited to another. Therefore, decision makers should proceed on a technology-neutral basis--by considering the attributes of all potential technologies--in selecting the technology or technologies to be deployed in a particular rural area."

Notice that while they still tout "technology-neutral" there are some new wrinkes in there.

For one they acknowledge that every technology has capabilities and limitations, and that these characteristics vary greatly among technologies. Then they suggest that while decision makers should proceed forward on a technology-neutral basis that they need to be cognizant of the attributes of those technologies when making decisions.

Now pair this with the array of attributes they recommend rural broadband networks should be able to support--like latency, scalability, reliability, upkeep--and you've got the start of something interesting.

The challenge with how technological neutrality was perceived before was that everything boiled down to speed or capacity. If broadband technology X can support broadband capacity Y, then it should be considered as roughly equal to every other broadband technology that claims to deliver that much bandwidth.

The problem with this mindset is it obfuscates both the limitations of lesser technologies as well as the capabilities of greater technologies. It allowed the purveyors of lesser technologies to say, "Well we can deliver that much speed but at a cheaper price so choose us" despite the fact that whatever technology they're peddling has clear physical limitations.

While I'm a believer that the best broadband is a fiber pipe to every house with wireless over the top, I'm not suggesting at this time that we completely abandon efforts by decision makers to remain technology neutral.

But what I am celebrating is what appears to be the dawn of a new age of what technological neutrality means.

No longer will the consideration of broadband technologies be boiled down to just speed. Now it appears as though we're going to have more well-reasoned, multi-faceted examinations of the full range of characteristics that make up world-class broadband networks.

And in so doing, we'll be able to ensure that all Americans get equal access to the best broadband while simultaneously avoiding wasting money on lesser technologies that can't deliver the connectivity our country needs.

The quote I used above as the title of this post may be the single most exciting thing I've ever read coming out of the government about the future of broadband.

To help frame it, Susan Crawford's official title is special assistant to the president for science, technology and innovation policy and a member of the National Economic Council. But to put a finer point on it she's been described to me as the point person in the White House on broadband, in particular helping coordinate the NTIA, RUS, and FCC on their broadband stimulus plans.

Now on the one hand the fact that she'd say "a digital economy requires fiber" isn't news. She's been known as an advocate for fiber as our true broadband future for quite some time.

But that didn't stop me from being bowled over by this quote, which came in this article exploring the possibility of the US following Australia's lead by creating a nationwide wholesale fiber network.

What stands out most about the quote is how matter of fact it is. Instead of dancing around the issue or couching it in terms of bandwidth, Susan cuts through to the true heart of the matter: only fiber equals 21st century infrastructure.

Having a government official so clearly understand why fiber matters is a revelation. Though she's not the first I've heard express general support for fiber, she's the first I've heard cite it so specifically, and to suggest that without fiber the digital economy can't be fully realized.

This suggests to me that Susan fully comprehends that the "digital economy" is about a whole lot more than just YouTube, Google, and Facebook. That simply being connected at any speed isn't good enough. And that there's an entirely new economy of applications, services, and content that will be enabled by the ubiquitous availability of high-speed fiber-powered connectivity.

Yet not surprisingly, as evidenced by this article and elsewhere, there are many who don't believe in her vision. Either they think the market alone will get us where we need to go, or that we don't need to go there at all. And admittedly having government get involved on the same level as Australia would be a massive paradigm shift for our country, and building a nationwide fiber network in a country as large as ours will be massively expensive.

But that doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't do it. Just because it'll be hard to do doesn't mean it won't be worth doing. Just because introducing this new paradigm may hurt some purveyors of the old doesn't mean that it can't also benefit them.

That's why I'm pledging to work with Susan, fiber deployers, and anyone else committed to this vision of a fiber-powered Internet. Everyone who believes that fiber is our future needs to begin coming together to build this argument and lay out the vision for what a fiber-powered future looks like.

The FCC's mandate to establish a national broadband policy provides us with a unique opportunity to have our voices heard in the creation of a strategy that isn't just good-enough but can match the aspirations of our forefathers to make America the greatest country on the planet. So submit your comments to them and start talking to everyone you know about the possibilities of fiber.

Because the simple truth of the matter is that without fiber we'll never be a superpower in the digital economy.

Whenever anyone tries making an argument against municipal broadband and/or open networks, more often than not it starts by citing UTOPIA as the poster child for failure, the example given for why other cities shouldn't pursue plans to wire themselves.

And in many ways, UTOPIA--the audaciously named, multi-city municipal wholesale-only full-fiber build in Utah--has been a cautionary tale. Started in 2002, the network still doesn't cover any of its pledging cities in total, it's not yet financially self-sustaining, it's already over $150 million in the hole, and it has struggled to attract service providers, especially any big names.

As Paul Larsen, Economic Development Director for Brigham City and member of UTOPIA's Executive Board, put it during my whirlwind trip to Utah last week, twelve months ago they were discussing what color UTOPIA's casket was going to be.

But the last twelve months have seen the beginnings of a dramatic turnaround for UTOPIA, starting with the introduction of Todd Marriott as their new executive director last May.

Todd took the job because he was excited about the challenge of rescuing what was essentially a failed project and transforming it into a model that the rest of the country can learn from. And with him he's brought a whole new attitude, vision, and business savvy to the project, as evidenced by the steady string of changes he's already been implementing to establish the new UTOPIA.

One of the clearest examples of this came during my tour of UTOPIA's facilities. Todd pointed to crate after crate of set-top boxes that had been purchased en masse years ago, only now they're outdated and useless, millions of dollars wasted. Today Todd has installed a just-in-time ordering system to make sure this mistake never happens again. But rather than leaving these crates to just take up space, he got creative and used them as walls to create a new conference room and war room in his warehouse, which saved them thousands of dollars in buying new walls or adding finished office space. Talk about making lemonade out of lemons!

It's important to note that the new UTOPIA is staffed with an almost entirely new team of people. Previously UTOPIA outsourced the management of the network to a company called DynamicCity and then Packetfront, but now that work has been brought back in-house and is capably handled by a team Todd compiled by plucking the best of the best from those companies as well as iProvo, a municipal network just south of UTOPIA that was recently sold to a private company.

While I only got to spend a little time here and there with various members of his team, I can say on first impression that these people are highly knowledgeable, genuinely nice, and excited about what they're doing at UTOPIA both because of the intellectual challenge of building something new and the fact they're giving back to their state, even though many live in communities not currently part of the UTOPIA network. Proof positive of this were the tales of how on the few occasions anything's gone wrong with network instead of punching out at 5pm everyone stays on until the problem's fixed, which is an attitude some remarked they've never seen in a government agency before.

But being creative in how they spend money and compiling a new team of competent, dedicated individuals is only noteworthy if it leads to tangible improvements in the health of the business, and on that front there's tremendous hope.

Before the new UTOPIA was born they were basically in limbo, only adding enough customers to make up for their churn, or the rate at which a network loses customers. But now they're adding customers and growing their base every month. They've been able to kickstart their take-rates primarily through two new ideas.

First, they've gotten into and hands-on with their communities. They've done this by retrofitting an RV with a conference table and big-screen TV to serve as a mobile command center that they park in communities, plug into the fiber, and then hold events at community centers on Saturdays. This affords the community the opportunity to touch and feel what having fiber is like. And I must say, the couple of short demos they showed me were incredibly impressive.

For example, I've tried watching HD video on before but my cable connection doesn't allow for a very watchable experience, whereas on fiber they had the image blown up to full-screen on a 60" TV and it looked amazing, better than DVD quality. Also, they piped in live HD video from a videoconferencing unit in their headquarters that has enough resolution you can zoom in and read a business card attached to the wall on the far-side of the room.

These are real gee-whiz things that can only really be done well on fiber, and the positive reception has proven that for customers seeing is believing. The concept has worked well enough that they're now in the process of retrofitting what was a race car trailer into a lifestyle experience that will be equipped with ways the fiber can be used to improve people's everyday lives, with the mobile command center then focusing on business users.

The reason I find these concepts so exciting are that they have a clear historical precedent. Back when electricity was first being deployed most people didn't understand why they'd want it. So electric companies had to go door-to-door with electric appliances to help consumers understand the value of electricity. Now fiber deployers face the same challenges of overcoming lack of consumer awareness, so it's great to see them utilizing similar tactics.

The other major thing they did to increase their take-rates was to unify the marketing of UTOPIA, which was previously left up to the service providers that led to a range of issues I'll address in another post later this week. Todd helped Hugh Matheson establish Network Community Services, a private company UTOPIA outsourced the door-to-door selling of the network to. I really like this angle as I've heard from other fiber deployers like Michael Johnston at Jackson Energy Authority that the biggest success they had increasing their take-rates was hiring college kids on commission to go door-to-door selling the service. But by having that function be served by an outside company it's both reduced the burden on UTOPIA to manage that process while also giving them a more dedicated professional sales staff.

Not surprisingly, as they've begun to have more success attracting customers, they've also begun to attract more service providers, including some big names that I can't yet share but they'll be announcing in the near future.

While in Utah I had the great fortune to play a round of golf with representatives from two of their current providers: FuzeCore, an Internet and voice provider based in Idaho that also deploys wireless networks and develops broadband applications, and Prime Time Communications, a greenfield fiber deployer based in Colorado that acquired the UTOPIA service provider MStar and currently offers triple play services.

What was most amazing to watch was these two competitors not just enjoying a round of golf together but even swapping notes on the technologies and business models they use. From FuzeCore president Tim McClanahan's perspective there's plenty of pie to go around and they believe in the ideals of the open source development community of working with people rather than against them. So not only is UTOPIA fostering more competition in telecommunications, they're also enabling more collaboration between service providers in this unique open environment they've created.

Tim shared that within two months of becoming a service provider on UTOPIA FuzeCore was profitable to the point where each additional customer they add is gravy. Their experience proves that UTOPIA can be a great business proposition for service providers as they're able to add customers without having to incur the massive debt associated with deploying their own last-mile infrastructure.

To support the continued growth of service providers, the new UTOPIA has expanded their business model in an interesting way. While they're prevented from offering retail services to customers by state law, they now offer wholesale voice and soon video services that service providers can rebrand as their own. In this way data-only service providers can start offering triple play packages without having to invest in switches and headends and negotiating licensing agreements with content providers. By doing this they're enabling more multi-faceted competition between service providers while also making it easier for new service providers to jump in. In fact, Todd envisions a day where a UTOPIA service provider could be handled purely as a sales and marketing operation that uses UTOPIA's wholesale data, voice, and video services, which could open up competition in a big way.

The final major piece to the puzzle of UTOPIA's rebirth is one I don't think I can talk much about yet but know that it's potentially game-changing for all community networks across the country. It's not a new idea to the world but it is new to the US; they're actively employing it today; and if successful it'll point to a new way to finance sustainable network buildouts. I can't wait to share more about this when I know I'm able.

I need to say now that while I'm highly optimistic about the direction of the new UTOPIA, I'm also realistic about the massive challenges they face. First off, the scope of the network is daunting, with 130 miles separating the northern and southern-most cities. Second, they have a lot of stranded network assets to recapture and leverage from the old UTOPIA. Third, they have a massive PR issue to overcome, both nationally as the poster child for why not to do this and locally where potential customers have either forgotten about UTOPIA or gotten fed up waiting for it. Fourth, innovators always face a harder climb as they don't have a path already staked out they can follow. Fifth, they still have that massive debt on their shoulders. And sixth, they need another infusion of cash to really get their new model moving in a big way.

But what the new UTOPIA also now has is a clear plan for how to get themselves back on track that they're already well under way to implementing. They're adding customers. They're attracting service providers. They're finding better ways to strategically structure their deployments. They've got a vibrant, capable team excited about tackling the challenges they face.

And most exciting of all is that if they're successful, then they'll have transformed themselves from the poster child for why not to do this to the shining example of how any region in the US can do it. This will be even more true because of the travails UTOPIA has endured and the debt they now must carry to pay for those mistakes. In other words, if the new UTOPIA is able to do it with the deck stacked against them, everyone should be able to make it work.

Tying this back to discussions around the stimulus, if it's the goal of the federal government to support testbed deployments that can establish replicable models for deployment across the nation of world-class broadband, then I think we have to consider UTOPIA as an attractive candidate to support. Yes they've had their issues in the past. Yes they're still dealing with the consequences of those mistakes in the present. But this is a new UTOPIA we're talking about, and I'm now a believer that they have the ability and opportunity to be a success story we can be proud of.

So I ask everyone to take a moment to put aside our preconceived notions about the old UTOPIA and reconsider the possibilities of the new UTOPIA. If you have the time and inclination, I'd encourage you to reach out to the folks at UTOPIA to learn more as they're eager to engage and be transparent about the challenges they have faced, are facing, and will face moving forward. I think you'll be excited by what you find: a potential phoenix rising from the ashes.

Recently I wrote a post lamenting the unintended consequences of the broadband stimulus, responding to stories I'd heard of projects that could be deploying today but instead have decided to hold off in the hopes of getting free government money.

But in that post I came off as overly negative, claiming that the stimulus may be causing more harm than good given that we're still months away from those dollars turning into deployment.

In response to this I've had a steady string of readers rebuking that sentiment because of one very important and very positive consequence of the broadband stimulus: it's getting everyone talking about broadband.

Before the stimulus there were tons of communities that weren't really talking or thinking about their broadband needs and fewer still that were in the process of developing plans to address those needs. But now every community is at least starting to have those conversations.

Before the stimulus it was hard to get the different stakeholders in a community around the same table to talk broadband as they either didn't care enough about it, didn't understand it, or saw nothing but a huge cost. Now the stimulus is sparking a coming together across the nation where everyone's talking about what they can do to get themselves wired.

Before the stimulus there were many communities for which broadband was a pipe dream. They just didn't have the money to consider doing anything and their market wasn't attractive enough to attract private investment. Now there's a significant chunk of money to help get them wired.

What's most exciting is that the kinds of conversations and people coming together the stimulus is inspiring is precisely what needs to be happening to get all communities wired regardless of the stimulus. So even if a community doesn't win out and get BTOP or RUS money--and we have to be realistic that most won't get money as there's not enough to go around--they'll still have made progress towards having an actionable plan for getting broadband.

And with this plan they can be ready to funnel the additional federal support that I think we'll see coming, assuming this broadband stimulus is a success, or as the basis for finding additional ways to fund/incentivize deployment.

While I often am critical of the government for moving too slow with distributing funds and not being aspirational enough in their goals, and the reality is that in terms of spurring deployment and creating jobs the stimulus has had little effect to date, at the same time the best consequence of the broadband stimulus has been its impact on stimulating interest in and serious efforts towards all communities getting wired with broadband.

The question moving forward will be, once the stimulus money runs out, what will we be able to do to leverage this catalyst to keep all communities on the path towards a more wired future? Will this interest wane once there aren't any more federal dollars to be competed for, or can this lay the groundwork for sustained interest and real action?

Because if these discussions can get all communities into a lean-forward mode, then that's potentially an even bigger deal than just $7 billion.

So while the stimulus may not yet be stimulating actual deployment or creating real jobs (other than for consultants and lawyers), it is already having a profound impact on stimulating interest in broadband and the conversations around how to get it that are needed regardless of what happens with those stimulus dollars.

The first details of the BTOP program were recently released and are available on

While light on details, the most interesting insight found herein are the timelines for achieving milestones. Interesting and depressing, that is.

Why do I say "depressing"? For one primary reason: the initial grants aren't slated to be made until 12/31/2009.

So much for this program being about "stimulating" broadband deployment quickly during an economic crisis.

Now I know NTIA faces a huge challenge in determining how to best distribute these funds and that they've been working at a disadvantage without a leader confirmed and in place, and in general I would prefer they take their time to make sure the money's well-spent, but I can't help but be frustrated at the glacial pace of goverment.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was passed in mid-February, and yet the best we can do to get dollars distributed is a 10-month turnaround? And for northern states we're really talking about at least a 14-month delay as they won't be able to start deploying until April at the earliest even if they get money in December.

I have to admit I'm disappointed that government isn't being more aggressive at getting grants out the door. Particularly because there are plenty of worthy shovel-ready projects that could be approved quickly, funded, and deploying now rather than next year.

Sure to do this will require government to be flexible and go about its business in a different way, but I don't see why we're accepting business-as-usual at a time when we have a new administration supposedly committed to overturning that stagnation in an attempt to find a better way to do business.

So what might a better way to distribute these grants more quickly look like? Well how about this: have the government set out a set of standards that if a project can live up to can get fast-track grant approval.

Now let's consider how these standards could work.

Let's start with unserved/underserved. Rather than getting stuck in a policy debate over semantics, why not just set the standard that to qualify for the fast-track a network must hit at least 50% unserved homes, and set some restrictions on making sure these grants don't go to areas with robust competition (DSL, cable, and wireless being available, for example).

Then I'd add in a requirement that the project have proven local support, maybe having to reach a 50% pre-subscription rate. This would then mean the first grants go to those communities who have most galvanized local support and will also help insure the network will be financially sustainable. (50% is an arbitrary number; it could be higher or lower depending on what's most appropriate.)

These two standards alone could be enough, or if the goal of the broadband stimulus is to create testbeds then why not be a bit more aspirational?

For example, set high capacity requirements, not necessarily tied to what levels of Internet service are offered but instead related to the in-network capacity of the network being built and/or the reliability of that network. In other words, can it deliver the speed it promises.

Another thought would be to go ahead and reward projects setting out to prove that open networks where multiple service providers compete over the same infrastructure can be economically viable.

And it makes sense to reward networks that will deploy ubiquitously, reaching everyone equally vs. cherry-picking and only bringing the best broadband to the most affluent customers.

Also, instead of getting caught up in the debate of fiber vs. wireless, why not subsidize the best broadband projects, which include fiber pipes with a wireless cloud over the top?

Let's review. To get money out the door more quickly, NTIA could setup a fast-track approval process based on the following set of standards:

- Projects that reach at least 50% unserved homes
- Projects that can prove at least 50% local support/pre-subscription rates
- Projects that deliver reliable, high-capacity networks
- Projects that support multiple competing service providers over the same infrastructure
- Projects that include robust, ubiquitous wireline and wireless access

I'd argue that any projects that can live up to these standards shouldn't have to wait for what may be another year in northern states before they can start deploying. These are the kinds of projects we should be supporting now.

I can't accept that the best we can do is a 10 to 14-month turnaround. There's got to be a better way to start stimulating broadband deployment today. And if the point of this initial BTOP money is to establish testbeds for sustainable networks, then I don't see why we should make everyone wait when we could be making progress to start proving these models sooner rather than later.

Over the last couple of years there's been a steady, though sporadic, push to suggest that we need to rebuild the Internet. For the longest time I've thought those calls to be alarmist and not practical. Then recently it dawned on me: the deploying of full fiber networks is in essence rebuilding the Internet. Or put more precisely, fiber points to what the next generation of the Internet can be.

So what does the next generation of the Internet look like? To find out I think it's important to look at Lafayette, LA, as that's where I think it's being built.

To start with, the next generation of the Internet starts with lots of bandwidth. Every subscriber to the LUSFiber network has access to a free symmetrical 100Mbps intranet, and as needs grow that capacity can be increased. In essence this means there's infinite bandwidth in-network.

Then tie into that high-bandwidth network a lot of high-powered computing. In Lafayette that could mean the supercomputer at LITE (a 3D visualization and immersive technology center), the supercomputer at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, or the revolutionary new model for a data center at the Abacus Data Exchange that's powered by Liquid Computing. So now you have near infinite bandwidth and computing power.

The next step is to start moving as much of the Internet into the last-mile network as possible. Instead of having applications and content residing on servers somewhere out in the cloud where you can't control where the data's going, instead have all that housed as close as possible to the end user in an environment where you can have quality of service and the like. This is the same basic principle driving the next generation of content delivery networks, like Akamai and Limelight, but taken to its logical conclusion and ultimate realization in a full fiber environment.

Then establish this in-network delivery model in other fiber communities.

And finally, get these communities peered up with each other so they aren't bogged down by excessively expensive backhaul costs.

Voila! Now instead of the Internet being a patched together network of networks with varying reliability/capacity, you have a fiber-powered nationwide LAN with limitless capacity. You have a network on which things like multicast and IPv6 can be easily enabled. You have the next generation of the Internet.

It's important to note that I didn't pull these ideas out of the sky. If you look at what other leading broadband countries are doing, especially Sweden, these are clear technological trends I'm describing. Those countries that embrace this concept and make it a reality first will be the leaders in developing the next generation of Internet applications that can leverage a network with these capabilities.

Important to note, though, is that I'm ideology free on how we get the fiber in place. While I do believe this model for the next generation of the Internet is being established in Lafayette, LA by a municipal network, if there are private providers willing to invest in world-class infrastructure and embrace the paradigm where bandwidth is abundant and not scarce, then I'm all for that.

Also worth noting is that other broadband technologies will play important roles in this new world: wireless as the extension cord, BPL connecting smart appliances, satellite providing access to areas where no other technology can reach and serving as a stopgap until fiber can get there, and DSL/cable potentially patching in to this LAN, assuming they have capacity and reliability to deliver an equivalent experience to fiber.

But the key is to achieving this vision is to at a minimum agree that this is a great goal to strive for and to make sure that those people who are putting the time, money, and energy into achieving it aren't artificially slowed in their progress by any entity trying to hold onto the last generation of the Internet.

Even better would be to get the government united around this common vision and setting it out as the model that private industry needs to be working towards. But that's not necessarily necessary.

By my estimation within the next 3-5 years this nationwide fiber-powered LAN will reach 10-20 million homes, and that's not counting Verizon. If they're willing to participate in this new world that could mean a marketplace of 30-50 million homes to sell/deliver fiber-centric applications to.

The most important things to remember about this vision I've laid out here are that this is where the world is going, and that this is where America needs to be if it wants to retain a leadership position on the Internet.

What I've described here is my guiding light and the large-scale goal that I'm working towards. It won't be easy to get here, but I fervently believe that we can achieve these lofty goals. And I won't accept anything less than the best for our great nation.

Broadband Shysters Stay Away!

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My biggest concern about the broadband stimulus is that we end up wasting dollars on dead-end projects. But what makes this an even greater challenge is that with the government trough now open, we've got a lot of pigs coming out of the woodwork trying to claim that they're the ones who deserve our taxpayer dollars.

Even if there were nothing but good actors going for stimulus dollars the task of efficiently transforming those subsidies into deployment would be great enough, but we must also be vigilant in making sure we don't allow those stinky pigs to muddy the waters and slow down our progress. We can't afford to waste time or money on anyone who can't deliver on what they're promising. And we have to acknowledge that there are bad actors, no matter how much we wish there weren't.

So rather than sitting back and letting them drag us down, I'm going to outright say it: broadband shysters stay away!

This then begs the question, how do we identify a broadband shyster?

First off, if someone doesn't have any experience actually deploying/operating networks, especially if they didn't get into broadband deployment until after the ARRA passed, then they may be a broadband shyster.

That doesn't mean that there can't be non-shyster startups, and we certainly don't want to discourage valid, viable new entrants, so let's take this a few steps further.

Second, anyone claiming to have a plan for deployment who hasn't engaged with and gotten buy-in from the community at multiple levels is likely a broadband shyster.

Third, if they spend more time touting how much effort and how many hours they've put into their plan rather than the details of the plan itself, then they're probably a broadband shyster.

Fourth, if their "plan" is more of a high-level marketing document then a detailed plan for implementation that includes mentions of things like rights of away, then there's a good chance they're a broadband shyster.

Fifth, if no one you know who you respect in this industry either knows of this person or respects anything they've done, then you've likely got a broadband shyster on your hands.

Now, to all potential broadband shysters:

If you're spending more time trying to tear other projects down than build yours up, you're probably a broadband shyster, or at the very least a broadband cynic, and in either case we don't need to hear from you.

If all you're interested in is lining your own pockets and you don't get satisfaction from delivering a service that furthers the public good, you should look in the mirror because you're probably a broadband shyster, and we don't want you.

I call on everyone reading this to maintain their vigilance in vetting and calling out all broadband shysters. We can't let these stinky pigs muscle their way to the front of the government trough. We can't allow bad actors to steal our hard-earned dollars to enrich themselves instead of our communities.

So I say again in what I hope will be a message that inspires a chorus of fellow broadband believers to join in with me in shouting: Broadband Shysters Stay AWAY!!!

Watch Today's Broadband Innovation Summit!

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I'm emceeing a daylong conference call Tech Policy Summit: Broadband Innovation today in Silicon Valley.

And you can watch along at:

Check it out!

On Thursday of last week the Benton Foundation, led by the venerable Charles Benton and the indefatigable Cecilia Garcia, hosted an event at the National Press Club in DC entitled, "Setting a High Standard for Broadband Stimulus Funding."

A long-time leader and tireless advocate for public media, the Benton Foundation's goal was to elevate discussions around how broadband stimulus dollars should be spent beyond the theoretical to shine a spotlight on specific applications that embody the kinds of projects these funds should be supporting.

Here was the lineup for the first panel: Bill Schrier, CTO for Seattle; Chris Vein, CIO for San Francisco; Tim Nulty of ECFiber, a rural fiber project in Vermont; Gary Evans of Hiawatha Broadband, a rural fiber deployer in Minnesota; and Donny Smith of Jaguar Communications, a rural fiber deployer in Minnesota.

Here's an overview of some of the thoughts that stuck with me while watching their respective presentations:

Bill Schrier - The most powerful statement Bill made was the observation that virtually the entire US is unserved. He says this because if a community were fully served it'd have fiber, yet the vast majority of Americans do not have access to this level of world-class broadband. He then took it a step further, arguing that the reason telework doesn't work is that we don't have universal access to high-speed, symmetrical broadband, the kind of connectivity that fiber delivers. Then he drove the point home with a series of rhetorical questions: With the stimulus are we going to build roads? Are we going to build copper? Or are we going to build fiber?

A couple of other points worth mentioning are that Seattle plans on building upon its existing fiber network to connect all community anchor institutions and then relying on private partners to build out a residential full fiber network. Also, Bill referred to Seattle's Mayor Nichols being a leader in getting cities to pledge to live up to the Kyoto protocol as an example of the kind of visionary leader the Mayor is and how that gives Seattle an advantage as they go about getting their community connected. Finally, Seattle's stimulus application includes laying fiber to neighborhoods, establishing a wireless smart grid, and delivering fiber to homes and businesses in underserved areas.

Chris Vein - It's going to be impossible to summarize what Chris has already done in San Francisco and his plans for their stimulus application in a couple of paragraphs, but know that I'm meeting with him in person on Thursday and will be able to dive into his fascinating plans in greater detail at a later date. But for now one of the biggest topics that Chris hit on was that broadband can't just be about access to the Internet as there also needs to be an emphasis on applications. The four layers he laid out that frame his vision are: access, apps, hardware, and training/support. He shared how a few years ago San Francisco did the leg work to go house-by-house to gauge in granular detail who's un- and underserved; how today in his city the most disadvantaged have access to the best connectivity, often up to 100Mbps; how they've established community health and education networks.

For his stimulus application he's proposing creating a new ecosystem by uniting the various pilots they've already had success with to create a new ecosystem that combines all of the layers of access, apps, hardware, and training/support and applies it to three of the most underserved areas of San Francisco. In this way we'll be able to test what works best in getting people to use broadband to demonstrably improve their lives and how best to reach underserved communities. Tying this back to the beginning of his presentation, Chris shared how San Francisco's Mayor Newsom laid out the big hairy, audacious goal of everyone in his city having access to broadband and computers, which is what's driving Chris's plans to reengineer San Francisco around the use of broadband. Exciting stuff!

Tim Nulty - Tim went right for the jugular in passionately arguing for the economic viability of laying full fiber networks to homes in rural areas, stating simply that, "We put a copper wire into every home 80 years ago, and fiber's both easier and cheaper to do today than copper was back then." He highlighted how his ECFiber project in rural Vermont is truly rural, with the biggest town being 7000 people but most "towns" being under 1000, and some towns having densities as low as 2-3 people per linear mile. The way he described it is that in many of these "towns" you wouldn't know you were in them when you're there, and that Vermont is actually the most rural state in the country with 75% of the population not living in or near a major metropolitan area.

In addition to arguing on behalf of the viability of deploying world-class broadband to rural areas, he also made a strong argument for investing in full fiber networks over lesser technologies. He said, "We didn't want to build something half-baked. We wanted to build something that will last for decades, a network with infinite capacity." He then cited how the network he helped build in Burlington, VT today has enough capacity to support 100,000 channels of HD video today and its capacity can be expanded as needed. How that same network can offer a Terabit connection, with a Gigabit connection only costing $900 a month. This is the kind of modern communications system that all Americans deserve, and that Tim is setting out to prove can be financially viable in the most rural of areas.

Gary Evans - Gary launched into his presentation with terrific gusto, describing his company, Hiawatha Broadband, as "the little company that could," which is incredibly appropriate given that when they first launched the big incumbents claimed they wouldn't even get a single customer connected but today while they're not the low-priced provider in any of the markets they serve they are the dominant provider, proving that rural fiber can be profitable. But it's not the company's profitability that has been most satisfying to Gary, it's the impact he's seen fiber networks have on the communities his company serves. More specifically, each of those communities is larger today than any of them were before they got fiber, sometimes stopping six decades of population decline.

In describing the projects they may be applying for stimulus support he shared that the network they'll be building will cover 600 sq. miles of rural Minnesota. But more than just getting connectivity out there he cited how Hiawatha will be hiring local support to build, operate, and provide customer service for the network, and how they'll be employing the people who do the work as opposed to incumbents who often outsource that work. Putting a fine point on the matter, he stated that Hiawatha can provide the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, NTIA, and RUS with a success story in can be proud of as his company has proven its ability to deliver the best broadband to all Americans and create numerous local jobs in the process.

Donny Smith - Jaguar Communications is one of those quiet success stories for rural fiber that not enough people know about as they've been too busy getting networks built to promote what they're doing. But I think their numbers speak for themselves. They currently have a service area that covers 10-20,000 sq. miles and serves 10,000 customers. The average township only has 400 people, and they serve areas with as few as 60 homes in 70 sq. miles, which is extremely rural. Over 60% of the areas they're looking to serve with stimulus support don't have broadband today and some can't even get dialup because the copper telephone lines are too degraded. But because of Jaguar towns of 8-10 houses can get 100Mbps to the home. And in many areas Jaguar's getting takerates up above 90%, proving that there is demand for world-class broadband in rural areas.

The other important thing to note about Jaguar is that they've successfully received, utilized, and are repaying loans from the RUS, and that they've been profitable from day one. Yet unlike most larger companies, where the goal is to maximize profit, instead Jaguar simply seeks to be profitable. As Donny's put it to me, "If this were all about making money, I wouldn't be working this hard." Jaguar was started by a bunch of ordinary folks who felt their communities needed to get connected and since no one else was doing it they decided to do it themselves. Like Hiawatha, Jaguar is a truly inspirational success story, and in my opinion exactly the kind of deployers the ARRA should be supporting to deploy their networks as far and wide as possible. Regarding the specific projects Jaguar will be looking for government support for, they're primarily in southwestern Minnesota and will leverage the existing backbone that Jaguar has installed to extend world-class broadband to homes across rural Minnesota.


There was also a panel of respondents that I participated on that I'll work on writing up later this week. But for now know that I came out of this event extremely inspired by the presentations I saw. If these are the kinds of projects that the ARRA ends up funding, then I think we're in for some incredible success stories. So let's hope that our friends at NTIA and RUS see things the same way I do and help get these best-of-breed stimulus applications fully funded and moving forward.

Updates on yesterday's spectacular Benton Foundation event to come shortly but for now the world needs to know about the hottest events in broadband policy going on next week on the West Coast: the Broadband Innovation and Tech Policy Summits.

On Monday I'll be in Silicon Valley emceeing the Broadband Innovation Summit, a daylong conference focused on educating community and business leaders on how we get more broadband, drive adoption, and foster innovation. We're also going to be diving into policy issues in an attempt to build a bridge between our West Coast innovators and policymakers and regulators in DC.

Attendance is free for individuals from government, academic, and nonprofit entities; free for all registered attendees to the Tech Policy Summit; and only $195 for a standalone ticket.

As emcee I can promise you that this will be an event well worth your time to attend. In particular we're going to be facilitating discussions and audience interaction vs. preaching from the podium, with a particular emphasis on fostering nuanced explorations of too often contentious and polarizing issues.

The Great Broadband Debate has already begun in Washington, DC with the call to action to formulate a national broadband policy. Now it's time to engage all corners of the US, so I look forward to seeing as many of you as possible in Silicon Valley on Monday!

Then starting Monday night and running through Wednesday will be the Tech Policy Summit, which will expand the technology focus beyond just broadband to include robust discussions of smart grid technologies, putting science back into policymaking, and more.

The good people at have a tremendous speaker lineup compiled that will undoubtedly lead to a series of can't-miss conversations. Registration for the entire event with all meals included and free access to the Broadband Innovation Summit is $1095, with a special rate for those who work full-time for an academic, government, or non-profit entity of $395.

If you're on the West Coast but want to be involved in the latest happenings in our nation's capitol on the East Coast, there's no better place to be then at the Broadband Innovation and Tech Policy Summits next week in Silicon Valley!

Yesterday I had my first in-depth conversation with Jane Patterson, executive director of the e-NC Authority, America's first state broadband authority.

I'll be diving into the details of all the great things e-NC has done over the course of its existence later, but needless to say it's mindblowingly impressive. From being one of the first states to map broadband, to playing an active role in encouraging the deployment of networks, to helping facilitate the dissemination of information from and coordinating constituents looking to apply to the broadband stimulus, and beyond: the e-NC Authority has had a profound impact on the state of broadband in North Carolina.

And that leads into the idea I most grabbed onto during my conversation with Jane: her suggestion that every state should have a broadband authority.

This makes so much sense it hurts. Too many states don't yet have an entity or individual officially designated as the go-to source for all things broadband. Too often those responsibilities end up falling under the larger umbrella of commerce or some other arm of government.

The reasons for establishing a state broadband authority are manifold.

One, broadband is a multifaceted complex set of issues. You've got mapping and spurring the deployment of more supply, you've got the tracking and encouraging of demand, you've got rights of way and competition issues, and you've got the incredibly huge task of trying to reengineer society to take full advantage of the benefits of living in a networked world.

Two, to tackle these issues you need people dedicated to solving them. This isn't to say that whatever other state agencies tasked with handling broadband aren't dedicated to these issues, but instead that if broadband is only one of multiple things you have to handle then you won't be able to give it the time it needs no matter how dedicated you are.

Three, to best leverage federal support you need an entity coordinating at the state level. For example, one of the best things I've heard state broadband authorities doing with regards to the stimulus is aggregating applications and trying to wrap them all up under a common umbrella, especially as it relates to demand programs. In this way you can avoid multiple worthwhile programs having to compete for the same dollars and instead put together a framework under which they can apply together and more importantly they can coordinate their efforts moving forward.

Four, each state has different terrains, needs, and resources, so the best way to tailor plans to spur deployment and adoption are to have state-level entities that are intimately familiar with the makeup of their states. No federal-level agency can know as much about what's going on on the ground as a state-level entity, and you need something at the state level to help coordinate the efforts of localities.

I could go on but I think you all get the point: if your state doesn't have a broadband authority then it's time to start making phone calls advocating to change that. And for our friends at NTIA and elsewhere in the federal government, I strongly suggest that you take heed of Jane's suggestions and try to find ways to support the establishment of broadband authorities in all 50 states.

Yesterday I was in Tampa, FL attending the 43rd KMB Conference where I participated in a lively roundtable discussion about a host of issues related to the stimulus, the formation of a national broadband plan, the benefits of broadband usage in healthcare and education, and what goals we should set for our country's broadband future. I'll link to the video from this discussion when it goes online next week.

But for now I wanted to touch on an interesting thought I heard while there from Rick Cimerman from the NCTA. He suggested that the stimulus should focus on creating new users over new competition.

While I've spoken out before against policies that prioritize protectionism over the public good, as that's in large part what Rick's comments are suggesting, that we shouldn't be subsidizing deployment any place the cable industry already is, there's another way of looking at this.

First let's consider how you create new users: by making broadband available to people who can't currently get it, and by getting more people subscribed to broadband.

Both of these goals are core to what the broadband stimulus wants to support. Though I don't agree with the notion we should limit subsidies to projects that only bring broadband to the unserved as I think that runs counter to the government's other goal of supporting sustainable businesses.

But I wholeheartedly support the overarching goal of getting more users online as it can result in a number of profound impacts.

At a high level there's the notion that the power/value of a network is equal to the square of the number of users connected to it. So the more users we add to the broadband-powered Internet the more exponentially powerful it becomes.

More specifically that's in large part because more users means more buyers. That reality cuts two ways, both in terms of buyers for ecommerce and online services, and buyers of broadband itself.

I'm particularly interested in the notion of having more buyers for broadband because of the impact that can have on deployment. Today only roughly 50% of households subscribe to broadband. Because of the high cost of broadband deployment and the need for robust takerates to enable sustainable businesses, this level of penetration can really only support a couple of providers. But what if we can take that penetration to 75%? That then opens up new marketshare for new competitors, which should spur deployment. Alternatively if it doesn't entice new entrants, then at least it provides more revenue to incumbents to justify upgrading their networks.

Of course, if these increases in takerates end up leading to nothing more than greater profits for incumbents without spurring them to increase their investment in capacity, then we've got a problem. But at the same time I'd hate for us to worry so much about enriching incumbents that we don't push all in on trying to enrich the country by getting more people online.

And on an individual level, I'm a believer that using broadband can improve people's lives in a whole host of ways. So the more people we get broadband available to and that we get online, the more we can help them make better lives for themselves.

Plus the final major piece of this puzzle is that the more people we have online using broadband the more we'll be encouraging innovative uses of broadband to spring up. No one person has all the ideas about what we can be doing with broadband, so I want to see us casting as wide a net as possible regarding encouraging usage as you never know what corner of the country the next big thing for broadband will come out of. It could just as easily be a shack in Podunk, IA as a loft in Manhattan.

For all these reasons and more I'm a big believer in the value of doing everything we can get to as many people online as possible. We may never be able to reach 100% penetration but we can certainly set that as a goal to strive for. And as we increase demand for broadband we'll set the stage for investment in supply to increase while simultaneously giving a boost to our digital economy by creating more customers and enabling more innovators.

For anyone and everyone in, near, or who can get to DC, I highly recommend you joining us on May 7th from 12-3pm at the National Press Club for an event hosted by the Benton Foundation entitled, "Setting a High Standard for Broadband Stimulus Funding: Urban and Rural Examples of the 'Best of Breed.'"

This event was inspired by a desire to elevate the dialog around the kinds of applications for stimulus dollars that we should be supporting. Rather than just wait around for the rules to come out, why not start looking at some of the best potential applications out there and discussing their relative merits. In this way we can both help raise awareness about these best-in-class applications while simultaneously educating others on how to enhance their own applications.

I feel quite confident referring to the potential applicants on the first panel at this event as "best of breed" given both the pedigree of who's applying and the quality of the projects they're proposing.

Of particular interest is that the panel will feature both rural and urban projects, showcasing the range of opportunities these stimulus dollars can be funding.

On the rural side we have three presenters:

- Tim Nulty of ECFiber, a very rural municipal project in Vermont that's going to establish a new paradigm for financially sustainable open networks

- Donny Smith of Jaguar Communications, a private deployer based primarily in Minnesota that already has a rural open network in place and operating successfully

- Gary Evans of Hiawatha Broadband Communications, a private deployer in Minnesota who's one of the only profitable rural fiber operators in the country

Quite frankly, these are the kinds of people and projects that I believe stimulus dollars should be directed towards. They're all proven in their ability to build and operate quality networks. And they're all committed to bringing the best broadband to all Americans.

Then on the other side of the coin there will be two speakers from big cities, namely:

- Chris Vein, CTO for San Francisco

- Bill Schrier, CTO for Seattle

These gentlemen will discuss their stimulus applications, showing how these dollars shouldn't be thought of as rural-only but that they can be very effective if used to fund pilot projects to bring the best broadband to un- and underserved urban areas.

The thing that excites me most about these panelists is that we're going to be able to take the stimulus discussion out of the abstract and start talking about it in concrete terms about the best ways for NTIA and RUS to spend their stimulus monies.

Then to bookend that discussion will be a panel of respondents that includes your truly speaking on behalf of the Rural Fiber Alliance, an ad hoc coalition of public and private, fiercely pragmatic network deployers; Mark Ansboury, CTO for OneCommunity; and Dr. Kate Williams from the University of Illinois.

All in all I'm certain this will be a must-attend event for anyone interested and engaged in what's going to happen with the broadband stimulus. So I hope to see you all there!

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