January 2010 Archives

Last week I wrote about how NTIA and RUS were failing stimulus applicants by not communicating with them.

While there has been some good news since then, namely that at least NTIA will be sending out rejection letters, I think we need to be seriously considering an idea I proposed in that post, namely requiring NTIA and RUS to release the scores they gave projects as well as any comments that were written during the review process.

There a number of reasons for doing this.

First, it would provide important feedback to applicants as they figure out what to do for the second round. While first round applicants have been encouraged to reapply, how are they supposed to know what they did wrong in round one without any feedback?

I understand that NTIA/RUS are overwhelmed and don't have time to provide detailed commentary on how applications can improve, but by having them give back the scores and supporting notes that would at least give applicants something to work with. And the result of doing this would presumably be to afford them a greater opportunity to improve their applications for the second round.

While I know that nothing's necessarily easy when you're dealing with hundreds and thousands of applications, I think the relatively small amount of time needed to do this would pay off huge dividends in the end and would be worth the effort.

The second major reason for enforcing this transparency is so that the public can have some sense that the review process is actually working. This would help both by providing a soft audit of this review process to make sure things aren't totally broken, and at the same time it would help with the PR challenge NTIA/RUS face. Right now the only people who believe the process is working is those who've received money. Everyone else thinks it's broken. If they share the scores and notes, they can show that it is in fact working.

Another potential side effect of doing this is that it may help to shame bad actors from reapplying in the second round. Let's be real, there are a lot of bogus projects that applied for money. But if they're shown to have embarrassingly low scores in the first round, especially if the scores are accompanied by notes ridiculing what they're proposing, then that might help keep them away from asking for money again. I know this may not happen as if you applied for money you don't deserve then you likely don't have much of a moral compass to begin with, but this is another example of the positive effect that being transparent can bring.

I honestly don't see much of a downside to doing this. Sure there are questions to answer, like should all scores be made available to everyone, or should they only send applicants their own scores? (I'd love to see the information available to all.)

And the one caveat is that by showing the scores you're likely going to end up with some applicants (rightly or wrongly) questioning their total and making a stink about it.

But, assuming that the review process is working, then these are issues that can be overcome and ultimately I think embracing transparency will be a net positive for NTIA/RUS.

So I throw the gauntlet down to NTIA and RUS. Are you willing to step up and use this as an opportunity to dispel the many doubts around what you're doing?

And to the White House and Congress, you all are starting to talk a big game regarding open government, well here's an opportunity to live up to that ideal. We might not be able to get NTIA and RUS to take this request to be transparent seriously as they have a lot of other things on their plate right now. But if not then we need you all to lean on them to make sure this happens.

If you truly believe that by opening up government we can improve how it serves the people of the United States, then here's a ball for you to take and run with.

Maybe I'm missing something about all this that would make opening up scores and notes a bad idea. If you can think of anything, add a comment below about what it is as I'm always open to being wrong.

But my sense right now is that NTIA/RUS have the opportunity to realize a big win with minimal effort. So hopefully this idea can gain the traction needed to become a reality.

As the tide comes back in on the net neutrality debate, it's important we stay focused on finding real solutions to real problems rather than wasting energy trying to demonize or marginalize the other side, especially when there are good points to be made by both sides.

To this end, I want to propose the start of what I believe are the key components to crafting a comprehensive, pragmatic solution for net neutrality. Note that it's not about any one of these steps over the others, but instead taking a nuanced approach to untangling the net neutrality knot.

In no particular order:

Make providers be transparent to their customers
This is an issue that's already gained a lot of steam and covers things like finding ways for consumers to know the actual speeds of broadband service providers rather than just the advertised. It also includes greater transparency regarding bandwidth caps and any overage charges or throttling penalties associated with them. If we want a healthy competitive broadband marketplace, then we need an educated customer base. The reason this relates to net neutrality is that customers should serve as one of the checks and balances to the system. If providers start abusing the system, their customers need to have a way of knowing about it and being able to take their business elsewhere.

Set strong rules against slowing down traffic anti-competitively.
No provider should be allowed to intentionally slow down the traffic of some to favor that of others. This is one of the greatest boogeymen of net neutrality, and rightly so. If we lived in a world where your cable provider could slow down Amazon.com's site so that customers went to Barnes and Noble's site instead, that would mean the Internet as we know it is dead. Luckily, most providers agree that this shouldn't be allowed and likely would support strong rules against engaging in this practice.

Don't dissuade innovation in the network to speed up traffic.
I think it's dangerous to assume that innovation in the network that enables certain traffic priority access is an inherently bad thing. If it means that apps like videoconferencing can start working a lot better over current broadband networks, then I'm all for that. Sure it'd be great to have infinite bandwidth, and I'm working to help bring about that future, but we have to be realistic about the fact that we're not there yet and likely won't be for quite some time. Also, we have to realize that if we prevent incumbents from exploring these possibilities, then it's very likely that they'll slow down their investment in building out next-generation capacity, which we can't afford. I think the real issue isn't whether or not some traffic should be prioritized, it's about who controls who gets onto that fast lane and how they're able to profit from it. So let's not limit the potential of this innovation, but we should...

Keep a close eye on how the prioritized market evolves.
Ideally, network operators build out smarter networks and these more advanced capabilities become available to any and all app developers and content creators on equitable terms. I think there's a chance the market will evolve that way on its own as it behooves networks to try and get as much to fill the pipe as possible. But I also acknowledge the possibility that these markets could get out of whack and that some network operators could choose to abuse their positions. Because of this I think it's crucial we have someone watching this space closely to see how it evolves. If things turn sour then we can be ready to step back in and regulate it more tightly.

Fund testbeds to prove if open networks can work.
I think it's a total non-starter to attempt to install a new regime of structural separation on the current providers. The only place that leads us is into court for the next decade, and even then there's no guarantee we'll win. Instead I think we should focus on supporting the deployment of open network testbeds across the US so that we can prove whether or not open networks can be viable in the US marketplace. My belief is that ultimately they will prove out to be the best option, but it's going to be a whole lot easier to make that case if we have some success stories to point to, which right now are in somewhat short supply on domestic soil.


If we start with these components I truly believe we can find a comprehensive, pragmatic way to approach net neutrality. There are real problems that need to be solved here. And together I know we can find the real solutions our country needs to move forward.

Oh Great: American Broadband Getting SLOWER

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While we often bemoan America's trailing position in the Great Bandwidth Race, I've just learned that not only are we not doing enough to catch up, we're actually slowing down, so says the latest State of the Internet report from Akamai (registration required to download).

American broadband, in terms of actual measured throughput, has decreased 2.4% from last year. Let that roll around in your head for a moment. Not only are we not going fast enough, we're going slower, we're getting less access to bandwidth, which is the lifeblood of the digital economy.

Now let me acknowledge that I think I know a reason for this, namely that more people than ever are accessing the Internet over mobile broadband connections. Given that mobile broadband often delivers less than 1Mbps, that puts downward pressure on our 3.9Mbps overall average.

But that's not an excuse I'm willing to accept. Other countries face the same challenge and yet are doing great. For example, all but three of the top ten countries in terms of average measured connection speed increased more than 10% year-over-year. So not only are they already significantly ahead of us, but they're increasing their lead as we slow down.

Imagine what the impact on our economy would be if instead of bandwidth these trends related to electricity. What would it mean if South Korea could run anything and everything that electricity enables, yet we could only use one appliance at a time? That's how important bandwidth is to the digital economy. Slower broadband means less bandwidth means what we can do with the Internet is constrained.

While some argue that we focus too much on bandwidth relative to the health of our broadband ecosystem, there's really no other number that's as important as it sets the limits of the capacity of our digital economy.

What makes this report even more significant is that it's not just an academic study of average advertised broadband speeds like most international rankings, but instead is based on the actual measured throughput of broadband around the world as measured by the world's largest content delivery network.

This report also features some other interesting tidbits, like the cities with the fastest average connection speeds. So who leads in the US? New York City? LA? Chicago? Nope, Sandy, Utah. In fact, no major metropolitan areas make the top ten for fastest cities in the US. This shows how smaller cities and towns are actually taking the bandwidth lead in America.

Another interesting, though potentially very troubling, revelation is that when you break down that year-over-year performance you see that half of US states have slowed down and half have increased. One thing this tells me is that perhaps it's not just a matter of slower wireless connections bringing down our average as some states are realizing double digit increases. But this then suggests is that networks in some states are failing.

In particular, look at Kentucky. They showed a 40% decrease in measured connection speeds just in the last quarter. Numbers like this have me worried that perhaps the century-old copper telephone wire is rapidly deteriorating and impacting DSL performance, or perhaps the cable providers' shared networks are overwhelmed with demand, or maybe wireless broadband is constrained by insufficient backhaul.

What makes Kentucky even more troubling is that they're supposed to be a leader in encouraging the deployment and adoption of broadband. What does that say about the health of the country if a state that's been seen as a leader is falling off this badly.

It makes me start to wonder if we might have a national emergency on our hands in states like Kentucky and others where broadband speeds are dropping. It leads me to think that perhaps we need a national commission to study these issues in depth and get to the bottom of what's happening as no state should be slowing down ten years into the 21st century.

But regardless of the details of why this is happening in any particular state, the overarching and overwhelming trend is that American broadband as a whole is much worse off than even I have been able to admit.

At a time when we should be hitting the afterburners and skyrocketing forward into a better tomorrow through bigger broadband, instead we're stuck, losing ground, and without any national consensus about how to move forward.

News like this raises the stakes for our upcoming national broadband plan. If we don't produce a unified framework for how to push the bandwidth ball forward in a much bigger way then we're going to continue this downward slide where before we know it we won't even be in the top 20.

And if we allow ourselves to fall further behind the bandwidth curve, then we might as well give up on being economic leaders in the 21st century because absolutely everything in the 21st century economy hinges on the ability to access affordable, high capacity bandwidth.

Ways That NTIA/RUS Are Failing Stimulus Applicants

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On Friday afternoon NTIA/RUS slipped the NOFA for the second round of the stimulus out their front door, starting the two-month clock on the next opportunity to make a grab for government dollars.

Less than a fraction of the first round of the stimulus has been awarded but now the second round is already available. But this creates a quandary: what are those that have applied for funds but not received notice either way as to the status of their applications supposed to do?

Many small companies and municipalities have tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars sunk into putting together all the information needed to apply for stimulus dollars, and yet they have not heard one word from NTIA/RUS in the five months since they submitted them.

Now what are they to do? Should they start reworking their applications, even though they don't know if they're going to win in this round or if their application never had a chance no matter how much tweaking? Should they waste more money attempting to navigate a selection process that seems broken and unable to produce results?

Remarkably, I've heard mixed things about whether or not NTIA/RUS are even going to send out rejection letters. Given that they're likely not going to be done awarding the first round until the end of February, that could mean that some projects won't know their fate until two weeks before the deadline for submitting to the second round, which is so absurd I'm having a hard time believing NTIA/RUS would do this.

Another thing that doesn't make a lot of sense to me is that I've heard there are currently no plans to give any feedback to applicants that don't make the cut in the first round. NTIA/RUS has suggested that they'll all be encouraged to reapply for the second round, and yet they're not doing anything to help them improve their applications.

I can understand that they're totally overwhelmed and not looking to take on any more work, but why can't they at a minimum make all the scoring and review materials available on the public record. If applicants could see their scores, who reviewed them, and the notes of that reviewer they could have something to work with on improving their applications for the second round.

If we made this information public we could also confirm that the review and selection process is working. And a potentially beneficial side effect of doing this is perhaps we could shame those applicants who clearly didn't deserve funding to not reapply in the second round.

I don't mean to be too bleak in the picture I paint about the broadband stimulus, it's just hard not to get discouraged when I hear from deployers who I know can be good stewards of taxpayer dollars and who I know have worthwhile projects about how frustratingly opaque this process has been.

Now with the second round of the stimulus out before the first round closes and even before a large number of applicants have heard one word on the fate of their first application, I can't help but feel that NTIA/RUS are failing these applicants and therefore all of America.

And things don't look like they're poised to get any better.

So far in reading through the second NOFA it looks like my fears are being confirmed that the major tweaks they've made to the rules amount to making it easier for more people to apply, which means there'll likely be even more applications to vet in the second round.

Even though I'm sure some of their intent in releasing the NOFA now was to get the second round moving forward so they'll have enough time to get through everything, if this process follows the same trajectory as the first round then that means they're going to take all the way until late summer and even early fall to pick winners. Given that it'll then likely take a month or two to actually get the money out the door, it's looking likely that we're going to miss another whole build season, especially in northern states. This means so-called "broadband stimulus" funds passed in February of 2009 won't be stimulating deployment until the spring of 2011.

And it looks as though RUS has continued to ignore the potential of loan guarantees, which the ARRA specifically supports and yet RUS for some reason refuses to acknowledge, despite the fact that they could allow them to distribute more money more quickly with less risk to taxpayers.

As I peruse the second NOFAs I do acknowledge that improvements have been made in some areas, which I'll get into in a later post, but my immediate and lingering reaction to this move by NTIA/RUS is that they're still scrambling to figure out what they're doing, and that as a result they're making a lot of bad decisions.

They're moving too slow when this is supposed to be about stimulus, but then moving too fast as they feel the heat of an approaching deadline.

They're opening the doors wider for more applicants in the second round when they weren't able to handle the volume of the first.

They're ignoring the commitments of time and money invested by good applicants into pursuing stimulus dollars for their communities while doing nothing to dissuade bad applicants from polluting the pool with bad projects.

And they're only tweaking the rules around the margins about who gets what and how when their are opportunities to pursue new ideas like fast-track partial loan guarantees that can make the whole system run better.

It's hard not to get down and feel bitter towards what appears from the outside as an exercise in government futility, especially as it's hard to see how things can get any better moving forward from here short of Congress waking up to how broken this system is and demanding that things get fixed.

But even on that front I hesitate as that would likely mean pushing back the date of getting dollars out the door even further. And yet I'm starting to wonder if that's our only hope of this money getting spent correctly. Maybe we should be considering demanding that Congress pull back on NTIA/RUS's reins, push out the date by which all money must be distributed, reexamine the progress (or lack there of) that's been made to date, and make sure we're spending money the right way in round two.

At this point, I'm really not sure how to move forward. What I do know, though, is that as an outside observer and a friend of many applicants, it's hard not to feel like NTIA/RUS are failing America in their handling of the broadband stimulus. I just hope it's not too late for this ship to be righted and set on a new course to a better tomorrow.

We Don't Give the FCC Broadband Team Enough Credit

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I've recently come to the realization that in my desire to see the national broadband plan do great things for America and my disappointment about the lower than hoped for trajectory its goals seem to currently be on, I've failed to appreciate and recognize something very important: the hard work being put in by a team of dedicated individuals at the FCC who are trying their best to craft a plan that's both aspirational and achievable.

I know some of the FCC national broadband plan team personally and can vouch for the fact that they're good people who are fully committed to their country's future and totally competent in their respective fields.

It can be easy to gloss over this fact, lumping them all together into a faceless mass while bemoaning what may be perceived as FCC inaction.

Alongside this is need to acknowledge the enormity of the challenge they face. They've had to go from zero to sixty in no time, attempting to come to a comprehensive understanding of a very wide range of issues, with entities on all sides trying to sway their opinion from all we need to do is tweak the system to it's time to start over entirely, with the pressure of needing to accomplish something great but being limited in terms of available capital and having to make sure that whatever's proposed in the plan is actionable rather than just feel-good, all while having to watch the clock tick down to B-Day.

To top it all off, it's likely that no matter what they do that everyone's going to be pissed off about something or other. Most of the more nuanced ideas they'll be proposing will be lost on a lot of decision makers. And the potential for this plan to turn into real action is not guaranteed, so all this work might be for naught.

It's easy to sit back, observe the process from afar, and pass judgment on what we perceive is insufficient action. And if you're on the frontlines of broadband policy it can be even easier to allow our passion to flame into frustration and then unfair characterizations. But we always need to temper that with the realization that there are good people at the FCC working hard to do right that face a monumental challenge.

I'm not suggesting we shouldn't question, criticize, and hold them accountable. That's our job as the public. But as we do so let's try to be constructive in our criticism and fair in our characterizations.

And to our friends and colleagues at the FCC, know that I and many others appreciate your hard work. That even if sometimes we're not satisfied with the scope of your plan, that's only because we believe so strongly in the importance of these issues to the future of our country.

The only way we're going to achieve great things is by working together and sharing a mutual respect that deep down we all share the same goals, namely seeing America achieve its full potential as a leader in the digital economy.

Questions To Ask Your Policymakers About Broadband

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Yesterday I had the opportunity to address the Net Squared meetup group in New Orleans about my work advocating for broadband in general and fiber specifically.

The NetSquared crew is a group of local techies who are committed to seeing their city be as great as it can be, in particular through the use of technology and the Internet. They've got an incredible energy having grown to the fourth largest NetSquared group in the world, and they're taking on a number of excellent projects to further the public good of their community.

Needless to say, these are my kind of people.

To add some context for this post, New Orleans is the midst of a mayoral race, with the first primary to be held in February. So during our discussion questions were repeatedly raised about what kinds of questions they should be asking their candidates to raise the profile of broadband and to get their stances on the public record.

Figuring out the right questions to ask is a challenge no matter what level of government you're dealing with, so I thought I'd try to help this process along by starting to compile a list of questions that fellow broadband believers can and should be asking their representatives in government.

Without further adieu, let's begin:

1. Do you agree that broadband is one of the most important infrastructures of the 21st century?
It's important to get policymakers thinking about broadband in terms of infrastructure. Too many still define infrastructure in terms of water, roads, and electricity and don't acknowledge/realize that while those are important, nothing will be more significant to our future in the 21st century than broadband.

2. How do you see broadband playing a role in furthering your policy goals?
It may be more effective to ask this in terms of making the assertion that broadband can help further all policy goals, but it'd be interesting to see how your elected official or candidate responds to this.

If they get it, then they'll start talking about all the specific ways broadband can be used.

If they kind of get it in the abstract then they'll talk in vague terms about how of course it'll be helpful without providing any specifics.

If they don't answer immediately in the affirmative then they're still stuck thinking about broadband as a separate thing and you're going to need to do more to educate them about how broadband touches on all facets of a community.

This question can also be asked within the context of whatever specific issue is important to whichever official you're speaking with. If healthcare's their pet issue, then ask how they see broadband improving that, for example.

3. Are you a supporter of open government, where the Internet can be used to increase transparency, engage citizens, and drive efficiencies? If so, what are your specific plans to implement open government?
Unfortunately, most people you ask this of will say a quick yes to the first question but then not have any good answer for the second. But getting them to say yes to the first then creates an opening for you to make suggestions for open government initiatives they could be pursuing. And by getting them on the record you'll have something to hold them to if they don't follow through. Open government is also something that should cut across party lines as how can someone be against this issue? So it can be a potentially good issue to build consensus on.

4. Do you believe that it's important for your constituents to have access to world-class connectivity in order to support continued economic development?
The key words here are "world class" and "economic development." By getting them on the record supporting the need for world-class connectivity then that establishes some minimum standards that must be met. Also, it's vitally important we get our policymakers to equate broadband and economic development because not enough of them do.

I'm going to continue working on expanding this list over time. If you have any thoughts for questions to ask policymakers, submit a comment below and I'll add them to the list and cite your contribution.

But for now this gives us a start. So get out there and start asking your policymakers about their support for broadband so we can make sure these vitally important issues stay on the forefront of everyone's minds.

Recently I had a chance to watch a December C-SPAN interview with Blair Levin, the man charged with writing America's national broadband plan.

In it he spends a lot of time talking about the progress America's broadband ecosystem is making on its own without any additional government intervention. For example, he cites how 90% of Americans should have access to at least one provider offering broadband at 10Mbps or above through market-driven means alone.

When asked if he supports Rep. Boucher's suggestion of setting goals for our national broadband plan of 50Mbps down and 20Mbps up (actual vs. advertised), he waffles, suggesting that it's a "worthy goal" but refusing to support it outright, and questioning if focusing on actual speeds puts it even more out of reach.

And that was basically the end of the story when it came to the possibility that the national broadband plan might attempt to set aspirational bandwidth goals.

Yet then at the end of the interview Blair goes out of his way to say that he thinks it's "really important to try and be the world's best mobile broadband country."

It's hard not to read between the lines and interpret this as him basically saying that he doesn't think it's important that America be the world's best wireline broadband country, or at least that it's not as important as America committing to taking on the challenge of becoming a leader in wireless connectivity.

While I'm all for becoming a global leader in wireless broadband, I'm more than a little troubled that even the possibility of striving for the greatest wireline broadband is being ignored, brushed aside by the belief that the market alone will deliver the speeds needed to keep America competitive.

Is private industry investing a lot of money to bring higher speed connectivity to Americans? Absolutely. But is that investment enough to make us a global leader in wireline broadband? Not at all.

While we're having trouble agreeing on five-year goals of 50 or 100Mbps, South Korea's working on getting 1Gbps to 80% of its citizens by 2012. This means that by 2012, South Korean users will have twenty to a hundred times more capacity available to them than Americans.

While we're debating whether our goals should be 2Mbps or 4Mbps, Australia's putting a plan together that sets the goal of wiring 90% of its population with 100Mbps.

What we need to realize is that if the US government fails to follow suit and set more aspirational goals then we will never have the world's best wireline broadband.

Are we OK with that? Do we want to be the best, or is average acceptable if it's easier? Are we satisfied with America's best hope being a top twenty finish when it comes to the most important infrastructure of the 21st century?

Because so far it looks like the FCC is. Their vision for a national broadband plan as revealed to date seems to indicate that they think America doesn't want to be the best, that we don't even want to try and compete, that we're satisfied with networks that are good enough when the rest of the world is building for greatness.

Well I for one am not OK with any of this. I understand that America has some disadvantages in its size, relative density, and the need to respect the dynamics of the current marketplace. And it's always hard to talk about problems like broadband that require expensive solutions, especially when in the midst of a financial crisis like the one we're in.

But I think it's a mistake to allow our desire for pragmatism to limit the potential of what we need to be accomplishing. I can not accept the notion that America is willing to permanently relegate itself to middle-of-the-pack status when it comes the availability and affordability of bandwidth.

Because that's exactly what we're going to do if we refuse to set big goals for our wireline broadband infrastructure.

Does America want the world's best wireline broadband? I say we do. Do you?

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from January 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

December 2009 is the previous archive.

February 2010 is the next archive.

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