Why is this page text-only?

« Broadband Debates Go West: Come Climb The Summits! | Main | Watch Today's Broadband Innovation Summit! »

May 11, 2009 12:54 PM

Recapping The Benton Foundation's Best-of-Breed Stimulus Event In DC

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.

Del.icio.us Digg Yahoo! My Web Seed Newsvine reddit Technorati


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)