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August 6, 2009 9:16 AM

When Is A Community Fully Served By Broadband?

One of the hottest topics related to the broadband stimulus is how to define what it means for a community to be underserved.

But there's been a huge piece missing from that conversation as we have yet to address the question of: when is a community fully served by broadband? When can we say that a community has enough and doesn't need government intervention to get more connected?

Based on the government's definition of underserved, a community's served if half of it can get terrestrial facilities-based broadband at 768Kbps down and 200Kbps up or if any wireless provider advertises service at 3Mbps down.

Apparently that's what it means to be fully served by broadband in today's America.

But I have a different way of looking at it. Let's break this down a bit.

The first thing to do is acknowledge that while politically appealing, it's less precise to base whether a community's fully served simply on how much bandwidth is advertised as available. We need to be tech aware in determining who's being fully served, especially if the goal is to have a robust marketplace of facilities-based competition.

So let's take a look at how you can get broadband to a home today.

There are three pipes going into most homes that can potentially be used to deliver broadband: cable TV, telephone, and electricity. There's a fourth pipe that can be installed in the form of fiber. And there's a variety of different wireless technologies that either deliver broadband today or could deliver it tomorrow. Plus there's satellite.

That's it. These are all the ways to get broadband.

Now, one could argue a community's not fully served until it has all of these options available to it. There are some communities on the verge of achieving this level of hyperconnectivity, like Lafayette, LA, which already has DOCSIS 3.0 cable available, the local utility's in the process of building a world-class full fiber network, there are rumors AT&T;'s building out it's U-Verse VDSL service, and there is some 3G coverage. The only things missing are BPL (which frankly doesn't look viable as a competitive broadband technology) and more flavors of wireless, which may come in the future.

I would argue a community like Lafayette, LA is fully served by broadband, or at least well on its way to being so.

A similar trend is seen other places where full fiber networks are being deployed. Like anywhere Verizon has FiOS, which are inevitably the communities that are ground zero for cable companies' DOCSIS 3.0 deployments.

And yet on the flip side, those communities not yet getting fiber tend to be stuck with last generation DSL and cable, often with only one provider able to offer 10Mbps down and no one offering more than 2Mbps up.

These communities don't have enough capacity to use all that today's Internet has to offer nor do they have enough competition to drive the engine of continuous investment and innovation between competitors. Because of this I can no consider them to be fully served.

But if you look back at the government's definition, they're not underserved. So what are they?

It's questions like this that are brought to the forefront when we start with the question of when is a community fully served and work backwards rather than attempting to define "underserved" in a vacuum.

One last comment on this issue for now, I do think we need to have a flexible definition of what fully served means as we should acknowledge that rural areas will likely never have multiple facilities-based broadband providers as there isn't a high enough density of subscribers to justify building out multiple networks.

But rather than being resigned to rural America becoming a broadband monopoly, I'm intrigued by the possibilities of open fiber networks that not only bring world-class infrastructure to all Americans but that also preserve the possibilities of competition by allowing multiple service providers to compete on the same network.

I'd argue a rural community's fully served once it has an open fiber network in place.

If we are to craft an effective national broadband strategy, we have to have some sense for what we're shooting for, what our goals should be. We can't afford to muddle around only worrying about who's not served. We also need to be defining a clear sense for when a home is fully served, and then base our actions on plans that can help all homes get to that status.

Because only then can we ensure that all American homes are fully served by broadband.

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Comments (1)

If "broadband" were defined to be at least 100 Mb/s symmetric, as the FCC's National Broadband Plan should do, it would be clear that a number of technologies aren't capable of delivering "broadband," including wireless, BPL (broadband over power lines), and satellite. Fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) is the only technology that can truly deliver this kind of "broadband."

So it would be unreasonable to argue that unless a home has access to Internet via cable, phone, AND electric wires, as well as wireless and satellite, it is "underserved" by "broadband."

Your opinion piece doesn't mention affordability of services. Instead, it seems implicitly to buy into the misguided notion that facilities-based "free market" competition will result in affordability. But only FTTP can deliver true "broadband." I think you're right to suppose that there will be at most one facilities-based FTTP provider in any given area. For that one facilities-based FTTP provider to act in the public interest, either it must be strictly regulated or it must be inherently motivated to act in the public interest. I believe that municipal FTTP providers are motivated to act in the public interest, snd that the telecom incumbents are not.

The title of the piece should have been ""When Is A Community Not Underserved By Broadband?" The term "fully served" implies that there's no point in providing service that's even better than "fully served" -- and I think we don't believe that.

If a community that already has FTTP "broadband" wants (narrowband) wireless too, that's fine. But wireless is not a substitute for FTTP.

Posted by Jeff Hoel on August 8, 2009 6:19 PM

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