November 2010 Archives

One of the most fundamental arguments given in support of public broadband projects is the potential they have for delivering higher speeds for lower prices than broadband delivered via private, market-driven, profit-maximizing means.

Sure there are many other reasons people support public broadband, like the ability for communities to better control their communications future, to have networks more grounded in local interests, to protect the public interest, to make sure that less financially attractive markets still receive service, and so on.

But when you boil it all down the base argument tends to be that public broadband projects can deliver more bandwidth for less money.

This brings us to the title of this post, namely that there's unspoken tension within this dynamic that's not often addressed directly.

The tension I speak of is the reality that the cost savings touted by public broadband projects come directly from the bottom lines of private broadband providers.

While in some instances public broadband's delivering service to areas for which there are no private providers, for the most part projects like those funded by the broadband stimulus deliver service to areas where there is at least some form of private broadband.

So when government agencies tout the savings they're helping America's anchor institutions realize, what they're also saying is that the private providers in those areas were charging too much for not enough bandwidth.

To many of you this may not be much of a revelation, and some agencies like NTIA have been bolder than others in pointing out this reality, but on the whole government's rhetoric does not match its actions.

Most of what you hear government talking about is the need to connect the unserved, and yet their approach seems to suggest that they also believe that there are tremendous market failures across the country in areas considered to be already served.

This lack of acknowledgement about market failures in broadband are another unspoken reality. There's no denying that the bandwidth needs of community anchor institutions are soaring. And yet most can only afford connections like T1s that are too slow and too expensive.

In some instances, community anchors are stuck as there's no faster infrastructure available at any price and there's not the business case needed to justify private investment in delivering that capacity. In others, there is sufficient infrastructure much of which has already been paid for but the private owners and operators of this infrastructure place maximizing profits over serving their communities.

Now, it's important to note I'm condemning private operators for profiteering. Most have a fiduciary obligation to their shareholders to do so. But at the same time, if we allow the market to drive everything then we'll end up with where we're currently at, with the majority of community anchors unable to get enough bandwidth at an affordable price.

Yet at the same time, I can't help but wonder if there aren't ways to shift the playing field for delivering broadband services to incentivize private operators to deliver more bandwidth for less money, especially in areas with limited competition.

Rather than just assume the only answer is government rolling in with a wheelbarrow full of cash, are there any ways to change the tax structure to reward the delivery of higher capacity, higher value broadband? Can government focus on aggregating demand to help justify larger private investments in buildout? Are there any other creative solutions we're not considering?

In the end, I'm not advocating for public or private broadband being the best way to move forward. Instead what I'm trying to do is point out that if we continue to talk around issues and not acknowledge the realities of our situation directly, then the odds of us actually fixing our country's broadband infrastructure problems aren't high.

We need a government that's willing to speak in clear terms about the needs of our community anchor institutions and our citizens. A government who's willing to stand up to industry when the public's interests aren't being properly served. And a government that realizes the need for creative solutions that don't just rely either on the market alone or massive outlays of taxpayer dollars.

There's an unspoken tension between public and private broadband, but there are potential creative solutions for addressing this, if only we're able as a nation to acknowledge what our problems are in the first place.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Broadband Needs

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In a recent post arguing for a great focus on broadband utilization rather than just broadband availability and adoption, I used the analogy of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Today I want to explore that idea further in order to establish a Maslow's hierarchy of broadband needs.

To start with we must review the five levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, starting at the bottom:

- Physiological
- Safety
- Love/belonging
- Esteem
- Self-actualization

Physiological needs relate directly to the physical needs of broadband. Without your physiological needs of food and water being met, you can't move up the hierarchy. To be able to use broadband, you need to first have it be available to you. Pretty simple.

Safety needs is where it gets a bit more interesting. I see at least two parallels in this analogy. The first is that broadband must be stable and reliable for users to feel secure using it. The second is that users must know enough about how to use the Internet that they feel safe navigating it. This last point in particular can be a major barrier to driving broadband adoption and utilization. If users don't feel comfortable online then that's a major disincentive to continued use.

The need for love and a sense of belonging has some profound ramifications when thought of related to broadband. Other than providing access to the world's information and entertainment, the biggest reason people use the Internet is to connect with others individually and as a community. The Internet has in fact redefined our sense of what "community" even means. This sense of belonging is what drives many people to spend hours online. Yet the flip side to this is that if you don't feel like there's a community online for you, or you don't know how to find or join the ones that do exist, that's going to be another major disincentive to use broadband.

With broadband available, and users feeling secure and part of a community, we now reach the tier of esteem, which is where users should start to get a sense of accomplishment and validation. This can come from others, like well wishes from friends when you first join and start using Facebook. It can also come from inside a user's self, as they accomplish something using broadband that has a direct impact on their lives. This level is so key as it's what gives users the confidence to believe they can do more, which is what will fuel their curiosity to find new ways broadband can benefit their lives.

We've now arrived at the top level of self-actualization, which is where users are able to continue reaching to achieve their full potential. Like in the traditional hierarchy of needs, you can see how this tier is only possible if the four tiers below it are addressed. Users need broadband to first be available, they then need to feel secure using it, they also need to feel a sense of community, and ultimately they need to feel a level of esteem to expand upon their utilization.

What's most important to keep in mind about this is that if users aren't able to reach the top of this hierarchy, then they'll never have the opportunity to benefit from the full scope of what broadband makes possible. It's only in this tier of self actualization that creativity's able to flourish, that users are able to consider changing their behaviors now that the rest of their needs are met, and that the real benefits of broadband are realized.

Now, I'm not sure if the broadband version of Maslow's hierarchy of needs should end here as there's still adjustments that could be made.

For example, for most users, issues of security are more about perception than reality. It's not that we necessarily have to do that much to make users more secure, we just need them to feel reasonably safe.

I also don't know if security, belonging, and esteem should be reordered as if a user has an experience that builds their esteem that can be the catalyst to get them more involved with the online communities that will lead to them feeling a sense of belonging.

There may also need to be additional tiers included so that we're not missing any of the major factors that drive users to want to use broadband more.

But I think this is a good start to helping better define how we should be thinking as we go about trying to get everyone online and benefitting from broadband. What this shows is that just making broadband available isn't enough. That in order to achieve universal broadband adoption and significantly greater broadband utilization we need to be cognizant of the many needs that drive the decision-making of users.

There's an exciting new development in the debate around net neutrality. This Ars Technica article highlights a letter that was sent to the FCC from an impressive group of tech luminaries commending that agency for recognizing that the open Internet and prioritized network services are two distinct and valid things.

The reason I'm so excited about this is that the net neutrality debate has been largely stuck on the notion that the FCC must choose between the open Internet or prioritized network services. The open Internet guys often decry prioritized network services as evil with the potential to destroy the Internet as we know it, and the network prioritization guys often decry calls for an open Internet as a form of socialism divorced from the realities of the capitalistic marketplace networks must operate in.

What this letter clearly highlights is that both the open Internet and network prioritization are valid concepts that may be able to coexist, so long as from a regulatory perspective we recognize that they're separate and need to be treated as such.

Even more exciting is that I think there's at least a chance that this perspective could allow the net neutrality debate to finally make some significant forward progress.

I'd think if I were an open Internet supporter I'd want to leverage this opportunity to move the debate to questions like how much of a broadband provider's capacity needs to be devoted to the open Internet vs. prioritized network services, enabling the discussion to be about how to specifically protect the open Internet instead of having to argue on behalf of theoretical ideals.

And if I were a believer in the value of prioritized network services, I'd relish the opportunity to have my position validated, to start clearing up the regulatory uncertainty that the net neutrality debate has created, and therefore to be able to continue building the future of my company in earnest.

Given that I actually am a believer in the possibilities of both the open Internet and prioritized network services, I could not be happier that we may finally be reaching a tipping point whereby the net neutrality debate can be about more than demonizing the other side and can instead focus on how we can continue moving our country forward.

Now, in no way does this mean the net neutrality debates are over. We're a long way away from that. There are still a number of issues that need to be resolved, many of which are alluded to in this letter.

For example, there's the issue I mentioned above, namely determining whether or not there need to be rules to insure that as prioritized network services take off that broadband providers continue to devote some percentage of their network capacity to delivering open bandwidth to the Internet.

Tied deeply into this issue are questions about network management practices, and how providers should balance their networks in real time as demand fluctuates between the two halves of the service they provide.

There's also a lot of issues around how the business models for accessing prioritized network service capacity should work. Does government need to be involved with setting the rules of engagement at the outset, or can it wait to see how the market handles things and only step in if there's a breakdown?

Then there'll also need to be some analysis of what happens when prioritized network services need to jump between different broadband providers. Will the rules that guide the Internet be relevant to this new paradigm in interconnected network communications?

And how do we keep an eye on the practices of network operators as we go through this evolutionary process to make sure that the public interest continues to be protected?

These are just some of the many issues that still need to be resolved, but because of this letter my hope is that we can now start digging into these specific problems and move the debate beyond what has too often been a good vs. evil back and forth that has made relatively little progress in the last five years.

This splitting-the-baby approach isn't necessarily new as the debate had been turning a corner recently with many open Internet supporters acknowledging the legitimacy of prioritized network services, and network operators admitting that they aren't trying to muck with the open Internet but instead just want the opportunity to explore new ways to monetize their networks by providing better services.

But today I'm more confident than ever that we're on the verge of finally reaching the next stage in the Great Net Neutrality Debates where we can start getting down to brass tacks about how to keep this dialog moving forward.

So kudos to all that wrote and signed that letter! Hopefully my optimism about its impact will not be unfounded.

In recent conversations I've been having with Michael Curri, head of Strategic Networks Group, it's become crystal clear to me that as a nation we're not focused enough on what really matters as it relates to broadband.

Most of the attention to date has gone to broadband deployment, figuring out how to get every last home online and how to encourage more deployment of faster networks. Increasingly the conversation also now turns to issues of broadband adoption, or how do you get everyone online.

What I've come to believe is that what's too often missing in this equation are questions surrounding broadband utilization, or how people and organizations are actually using broadband to improve their lives and how can we encourage more of that use.

The reason this is so important is simple: why are we building broadband networks? Is the end game to have viable, self-sustaining infrastructure? Is it to make sure that everyone's connected to that infrastructure? Or is what really matters what we do with that infrastructure once we've got it?

To some this may seem like an obvious line of thinking. We didn't deploy electricity in the 20th century for the sake of deploying electricity, and we didn't encourage adoption for the sake of being able to use electricity, it's what individuals and institutions did with electricity that led America to be the economic superpower of the 20th century.

I bring this up because I think we've been focusing too much energy on issues of deployment and adoption to the detriment of those surrounding utilization.

Is focusing on deployment important? Absolutely! Without broadband available none of the rest of this is important. But we can't lose sight of the fact that having viable networks is only part of the equation.

Is focusing on adoption important? Without a doubt! We need an environment whereby everyone understands the value of broadband and has the financial ability to get connected. But if we only focus on the basics of getting people online we'll never realize the full potential of what broadband has to offer.

A way to think about this is Maslow's hierarchy of needs. The bottom tiers of Physiological and Safety relate to the availability of broadband. The middle tier of Love-Belonging relates generally to the adoption of broadband. The top tiers of Esteem and Self-Actualization, then, relate to the utilization of broadband.

It's important to note that it's in this top tier where we find things like creativity, problem solving, confidence, and achievement.

What this says to me is that despite the fact that the bottom tiers of deployment and adoption are vitally important, if we focus all of our attention on them we're missing out on encouraging greater realization of the true benefits of broadband, which can only be found in the utilization of the many apps, services, and technologies that broadband makes possible.

So let's not limit our focus to deployment and adoption. Instead let's realize that, in the end, what really matters most is what we do with broadband once we've got it. And that if we want our communities to realize the full potential of what broadband makes possible, we can't stop at deployment and adoption when it's the utilization of broadband that drives economic development and improves quality of life.

Who Will Fix America's Broken Broadband Policies?

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There can be no argument against the current deficiencies of America's broadband policies.

A third of Americans don't subscribe to broadband, and the rate of adoption is slowing.

Upwards of ten percent of American's can't subscribe, and there's no clear plan in place yet to provide them access to fix that.

Many Americans only have access to broadband that's too slow, too expensive, and not reliable enough.

Most of America is not yet realizing even a fraction of the potential that broadband has to offer.

And we ignore at our peril the reality that "broadband" in America means less bandwidth for more money than countries like South Korea, Sweden, and soon Australia.

Yet despite these undeniable truths about our shortcomings as a nation, our policymakers in DC continue to focus almost all attention on the issues of net neutrality and reclassification.

It was just two years ago that the Obama administration swept in a Democratic Congress with a wave of promising appointees that filled us with hope that a new day had dawned for broadband policy making. These were people who were supposed to get it. Who weren't afraid to take on big challenges.

Now two years later little progress has been made on directly addressing the issues listed above. At best the government's thrown $7 billion at the problem and made some tweaks around the edges of a system that's failing to deliver equal access to all Americans and to maximize the potential of this 21st century infrastructure.

Today we have a White House that says very little of substance about broadband. An FCC that's somehow lost the authority to regulate broadband and has been overly enamored with solving the relatively easy problem of freeing up more spectrum. And a Congress that's so polarized it can't move on anything, let alone something as potentially politically charged as making the many tough choices that need to be made in building a better framework for broadband policymaking.

And with a newly Republican House what's so so scary is that the odds of any progress being made on issues like net neutrality are nil, especially with each side of the issue ready to scream bloody murder if they have to give up an inch.

So what this all leads me to is, who's going to step up and lay out a path of sound policies to build a better broadband future for America?

The facts can't be ignored that we're not where we should be, so how do we get from here to there? Who's willing to recognize that to achieve long-term gains there may have to be some short-term losses and that we can't put aside entirely the possibility of making additional funding a national priority?

Now, I'm not totally without hope. NTIA is an agency in the White House that fancies itself an Internet policy shop. While it may not be diving in to try and solve all these broadband-related issues, they could play a helpful leadership role if they wanted to to at least get us pointed in the right direction.

I haven't given up on the FCC yet as the reality is that Genachowski still has three votes and the support of the White House, so if he wants to he could start taking up the charge and putting the pressure on Congress to act. But I'm not holding my breath that the FCC is capable of getting us going in the right direction as their actions have mostly been anything but visionary over the last two years.

And there's always the chance that President Obama wakes up to the significance of these issues relative to his desire to grow the economy as he leads this country deeper into the 21st century.

But where I'm most hopeful for the potential for change is in local, state, and maybe even some day Congressional leaders stepping up and realizing that they need to make broadband a priority, not just because it's what the country needs but also because it's what will help them get reelected.

What I'm saying is I think the only way to truly change the system is by engaging the people of this great nation, finding ways to bring those who are already interested in broadband together to learn from each other and to find ways to leverage that energy to teach those who are not yet connected. By empowering more users we create more educated voters who'll demand more from their leaders.

We also need to be supporting our digital innovators to help them find new solutions to old problems through the use of broadband-powered apps, services, and technologies. Because these are the future captains of industry who policymakers will ultimately need to be supporting the growth of to enable them to continue creating more jobs.

By doing these things those of us who are out there building networks of fiber, computers, and communities can overcome the follies of our "representatives" and their appointees in DC set this nation back on track to stay a global leader.

I didn't start this post intending for it to become a rallying cry for those who believe as I do in the power of fiber to positively impact every aspect of our lives and communities, but it's the only place I could find with certainty the kind of energy that's needed to fix what's wrong with our country.

Who will fix America's broken broadband policies? We will.

It won't be fast, and it won't be easy, but we will endure, innovate, and prosper in our broadband-powered future, and in so doing shape policies from the bottom up.

About this Archive

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

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