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July 3, 2009 10:08 AM

Why The BTOP/BIP NOFA Definition of Broadband Is Inadequate

On Wednesday NTIA and RUS released their long-awaited, eagerly anticipated Notice of Funds Availability (NOFA) for the BTOP and BIP programs, respectively, which aim to spur the deployment of broadband through making available billions in grants and loans.

While there's lots to be discussed about what's contained herein, I want to start with the part of this that's already drawing the most ridicule: how they define broadband.

Rather than setting a more aspirational minimum threshold, this NOFA simply adopts the FCC's definition of 768Kbps down and 200Kbps up. So long as a grant/loan application delivers that much capacity, they're eligible to receive government subsidies.

To give a sense for how the Internet's thought leaders are reacting to this, let's consider this quote from a man who's often referred to as the "father of the Internet," Vint Cerf: "The definition of broadband sucks so badly it should be used to sequester carbon dioxide."

Now before I get into my critique of how inadequate this definition of broadband is, let's first give credit where credit's due and acknowledge what they got right, which can be summed up by quoting a single paragraph:

"Networks will be graded on a sliding scale with higher end-user speeds receiving a higher score. Proposed networks with high latency will be viewed unfavorably. Applicants may gain additional consideration if the applicant can demonstrate a clear and affordable upgrade path for the network."

So higher capacity networks and those with clear upgrade plans will get higher scores, and those with higher latency will get lower scores. That's all great, but in the end its still inadequate.

Let's take a look at why they chose 768/200:

"RUS and NTIA favor this broadband speed threshold because it leverages the FCC's expertise, utilizes an established standard, facilitates the use of many currently common broadband applications (e.g., web browsing, VOIP, and one-way video), allows for consideration of cost-effective solutions for difficult-to-serve areas, and is the most technology-neutral option (because it encompasses all major wired and wireless technologies)."

So first off "leverages the FCC's expertise" and "utilizes an established standard" mean essentially the same thing, that it's easier and less risky for them to use the FCC's definition then to try and set out their own. Basically, I read this as them not wanting to stick their necks out and giving pundits someone else to blame for the inadequate definition.

Next up, I have to admit being totally flabbergasted by their claims that this definition "facilitates the use of many currently common broadband applications" and yet they completely ignore entire classes of "currently common broadband apps" like two-way videocalls, uploading video to YouTube, remote computer backups, webcasting video out to the world, P2P applications, and more. They're basically saying that their definition's adequate because the Internet's primarily a one-way medium. Has no one been paying attention to what's been happening on the Internet over the last 5 years?! It seriously feels like they're writing this definition as if it were 1999. The craziest thing about this is that they didn't even need to define broadband as symmetrical to be reasonable; if they would've just bumped the upstream threshold to 500Kbps then there'd be enough capacity to handle uploading low-quality video, but instead they chose an embarrassingly inadequate minimum and chose to ignore the many apps that need more upstream bandwidth.

Then they make the claim that this inadequate definition "allows for consideration of cost-effective solutions for difficult-to-serve areas." I can't help but read "cost-effective" as "cheap." I can't help but read between the lines and think they're saying, "It's too expensive to get rural America real broadband so we'll just give them the cheap stuff." I can't help but read this as them saying that rural communities don't need 21st century connectivity, that it shouldn't be a priority to strive to provide equal access to all Americans. I don't see how anyone who cares about the future of rural America can find this adequate.

Finally, the militant adherence to a regime of technological neutrality is starting to get a bit comical. They're basically saying that they couldn't set the bar too high as that might exclude some broadband technologies, that it's more important that all broadband technologies have a fair shot at stimulus dollars than it is to deliver the kind of connectivity Americans need to participate -- let alone compete -- in the digital economy. Why is it we refuse to acknowledge that some technologies may not be worth investing in? Why do we continue to prioritize protecting the rights of technologies over promoting the rights of citizens? This mindset is absurdly inadequate.

If only these were the only aspects of how they're defining broadband that were inadequate, but unfortunately that's not the case.

For example, check this out: "Applications will be scored for the extent to which the advertised speed for the network's highest offered speed tier exceeds the minimum speed requirement for broadband service."

Notice how they specifically cite "advertised speed" rather than actual. This is bad on multiple fronts. It rewards gamesmanship when it comes to how much speed a network says it can deliver vs. what it can actually deliver. As there are additional points granted to networks that can offer higher speeds, there's now an incentive to over-promise and no penalties for under-delivering. Even worse than that is it opens the door for lesser technologies to promise but not even be able to deliver the minimum of 768/200. By not looking at the capacity a network can actually deliver it renders bandwidth thresholds irrelevant.

But putting all this aside for a moment, the biggest reason I find this definition inadequate is because of how unbelievably short-sighted it is. Any investment in broadband infrastructure needs to be considered with a horizon of at least five to ten years, and preferably longer. We don't want to have to subsidize the expensive and time-consuming process of deploying broadband again in a couple of years because we invested in inadequate technology today.

So regardless of whether or not you think 768/200 is adequate today, what about in 2019? Because the reality is that whatever networks we subsidize today is likely all these rural communities are going to have until we subsidize them again. So by setting the bar too low we're essentially cementing underserved communities to permanent underserved status.

Unfortunately this acceptance of mediocrity, this unwillingness to aspire for greatness, infects the entire document even at a meta level. A quick search shows that Kbps is mentioned 24 times, Mbps only 11 times, and Gbps not once. The fastest speed cited anywhere is 100Mbps for middle-mile networks. How is this adequate when some countries are setting goals of bringing 1Gbps of connectivity to the majority of homes within the next 5 years? How is it in the 21st century, when communities elsewhere in the world are realizing 100Mbps to the home today that we're spending more time talking about Kbps than Mbps? When did America become so afraid of striving for greatness?

I know a lot of hard work was put into this NOFA, and I respect the energy and long hours expended by everyone involved with compiling this document. And there are other things in here that I do like that I'll write about later. But I also know that I'm not alone in being incredibly disappointed by the lack of ambition that their definition of broadband shows. I fear that what's driving much of this is the desire to be politically correct and inclusive, to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table.

But now is not the time for milquetoast attempts to make everyone happy. Now is the time for a bold plan that can catapult America back to the top of the broadband rankings. And we can't have an adequate plan for achieving this if we're still talking about our goals for broadband in terms of Kbps.

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Comments (2)

This leaves the incumbents free to roll out fiber on their own profit-maximizing schedule, and maintain their oligopoly, without serious competition from anything funded by the government.

By way of contrast, it's been reported that Beijing plans to spend $14.6 billion on a municipal network by 2012 (http://ipcommunications.tmcnet.com/news/2009/06/17/4231817.htm).

Talk about getting your lunch eaten.

Posted by Larry Press on July 4, 2009 2:56 PM


One of the more important aspects of the definition is that it is used to determine if an area is "un-served" or "underserved"

What areas don’t have 768/200 "claimed" broadband?

In addition they give the incumbents a 30 day window to comment (read “de-rail”) any application that isn't their own. Oh, and they also lie about their coverage areas too... I’ve seen them take a map and draw a big circle on it and tell local officials that’s their service area, incumbents lie, go figure

Also, by this definition, the incumbents can’t even use this money to upgrade their own woefully insufficient services in rural areas, because they are already served by the low speed service they peddle as broadband. On numerous occasions where I have visited one of my rural clients and stayed in town at hotels advertising “high-speed” broadband, its typically so slow I can’t even successfully send and receive email (Verizon area now sold to Frontier) But they advertise a 3Mbps DSL service… So they are not even “under-served.”

Now try to square this with the other stated objectives of the program, such as rural economic development. How do you compete in the 21st century global information economy with 768/200, or even the 3mb for “under-served,” how many new rural jobs will that create? I can tell you of a community I am presently working with which has a small aircraft manufacturer who needs 50-100Mbps to be able to stay in that community. This represents a potential loss of 250 high-paying jobs, or the potential of up to 50 new jobs in the next five years if they can get the 50-100Mbps. Verizon, who is the current incumbent (though they sold this area to Frontier) offers these levels of business class service in their FiOS service areas, but not there…

How do you promote advances and improvements in rural healthcare, connect doctors to the hospitals and patients to doctors. And what about education; can you serve a whole school with 767/200?? per school or per hospital or per senior or disabled shut in, etc???

More importantly, how do you create rural healthcare and education networks when you can only apply for areas that are so rural and low density that they don’t have at least 768/200? So if we apply for all the surrounding areas of these small communities we can’t go into them to connect schools, hospital, public safety or businesses with the program grant dollars because they are “already served.”

And, how do you make any of this economically feasible?

Basically they caved to the incumbent service provider lobby, who shot themselves in the foot with these ridiculous broadband definitions, and now can’t even overbuild or upgrade their own networks, since they are already served… So, basically they can only apply for areas they really don’t want to serve and the program dollars don’t cover the long-term OPEX of serving such remote areas, so many will think twice about applying, so where is this all going?

It will be interesting to see how many projects submitted truly qualify and if they can’t qualify enough projects, if they will follow their own rules or just cave and give the money to the incumbents in the end.

So really, the situation is much, much worse than you have thus far articulated.

Posted by Ernie Bray on July 7, 2009 2:52 AM

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