January 2011 Archives

It pains me to say this, but our government's 100% wrong when it comes to how it's trying to solve the rural broadband dilemma.

The reasoning behind this statement is that our government leaders don't just talk about how to get connectivity to these communities, instead they talk in terms of how do they make the environment more conducive to private investment to fill these gaps.

Now, this attitude does make some sense in more densely populated areas, where private-led investment has proven reasonably effective. But when that population density drops, the profit of deploying broadband infrastructure disappears rapidly.

Where this leads us to is that government investments end up focused on subsidizing profits, which leads to a less efficient transference of public dollars into increased deployment.

When you really think about it, this mindset doesn't make any logical sense. If it's going to cost some huge sum to get rural America online, why are we focusing our limited resources on subsidizing profits for private companies? Why aren't we more seriously investing in non-profit solutions to rural broadband?

Yet this is exactly what our government's doing. Just look at this post from MuniNetworks.org about RUS favoring private, for-profit entities in its stimulus awardees by a two-to-one margin.

It's worth noting that they did this in spite of Congress's initial guidance that the broadband stimulus should be focused primarily on non-profit projects.

I look at this in simple terms. If it's expensive to wire rural America, then I want to be as cost effective as possible in getting the job done. The cost of putting fiber in the ground is pretty straightforward whether you're a public or private entity, the only difference is in how much profit's built-in to the business model.

Now, some will argue that it's better to have private sector entities lead this deployment as they're more likely to be innovative and cost effective because of their profit motives.

But the truth we can't ignore is that private companies tend to only innovate and invest in expanding network capacity in the face of free market competition. While I don't blame them for this as they have fiduciary duties to their shareholders to maximize profits, we also must acknowledge that the demographics of rural markets can't support facilities-based competition. There's a reason they don't have adequate connectivity in the first place!

So what this brings me to is that if we're going to subsidize private profit-making solutions to rural broadband, then we have to put in place safeguards to insure those networks don't abuse their monopoly position and continue to invest in improving the service they deliver.

But you know what? We're not really doing that. RUS just gave two thirds of its money to private entities that are in large part profit-maximizing with no real safeguards to insure service improves over time despite the lack of competition.

What we need our leaders in DC and in state governments across the nation to realize is that rural America needs sustainable broadband networks, not necessarily profitable ones. If we focus all our attention on making rural areas profitable to deploy to it means we're effectively subsidizing those profits without any guarantees that rural America will get the service they need over the long-term.

While I think there are legitimate debates still to be had about what the best paradigm is for all of America's long-term broadband future as the private sector has done an adequate job of connecting most Americans, we need to accept that rural America needs different solutions, ones that prioritize getting people connected rather than maximizing the profits driven off of each connection.

This doesn't mean the private sector can't play a role, but rather that the paradigm of private sector broadband delivery must be different for rural America. So long as we continue to prioritize profits over people, we won't be able to truly solve our country's rural broadband shortcomings.

Last night President Obama gave his annual state of the union address. I, like many others, waited with bated breath to see what he had to say about broadband in America as these speeches foreshadow what we can expect from the administration in the coming year. Unfortunately, like most years, I found the President's support of broadband to be more than a little underwhelming.

Let's dive into a blow-by-blow analysis of the President's remarks.

At the beginning, his rhetoric starts off right:

"At stake right now is not who wins the next election - after all, we just had an election. At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else. It's whether the hard work and industry of our people is rewarded. It's whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on a map, but a light to the world."

Needless to say, a remark like this elicits an "Amen!" from this side of the aisle. Yet it doesn't take long for his rhetoric to stray from reality:

"Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers, and sell their products wherever there's an internet connection."

What's so frustrating about this statement is it's imprecision. It is simply not true that "any company can set up shop...wherever there's an internet connection."

Just because you have access to the Internet doesn't mean that access is sufficient to build a business on. There are scores of businesses that require high capacity, low latency access to the Internet, and that number's increasingly daily. Yet the President's comment makes it sound like so long as you have dialup, you're good to go. And we all know that's just not the case.

The reason I'm harping on what may seem like a minor issue is that if our government leaders don't understand the real bandwidth needs of businesses in the 21st century than we have little hope of realizing a broadband infrastructure capable of driving economic development across all of America.

Let's look at another couple of quotes that setup our continued analysis of the disconnect between the President's rhetoric and the reality of what our country needs:

"We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business."

"To attract new businesses to our shores, we need the fastest, most reliable ways to move people, goods, and information - from high-speed rail to high-speed internet. Our infrastructure used to be the best - but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater internet access than we do."

With this kind of setup, I was on the edge of my seat. This is exactly the kind of rhetoric we need our leaders to be using. And the fact that the President was citing our need for high-speed Internet within the context of South Korea's global leadership got my hopes up that we were about to hear something bold.

So what was the payoff of all this:

"Within the next five years, we will make it possible for business to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98% of all Americans."

Ummm... that's it? Really? So we're going to go from 92.5% 3G coverage to 98% in the next five years when countries like Japan, South Korea, and Sweden are already at or above that goal? One can make the argument that these other countries might not have 98% 4G coverage today, but given their lead in 3G how are we expecting to beat them to the 4G punch?

But what's much more galling about this is his earlier comment that "to attract new businesses to our shores, we need the fastest, most reliable ways to move people, goods, and information." Last I checked wireless broadband is neither the fastest nor the most reliable way to move information. In fact, if a business is a serious user of broadband, then the only reason they'd be on wireless is as an option of last resort.

No matter how bullish you are on wireless, the irrefutable truth is that if we want an infrastructure that will allow us "to make America the best place on Earth to do business" then that HAS to include robust wireline capacity in addition to wireless.

It's honestly mind-boggling to me that I have to keep reiterating this point. Wireless is not magic. It has clear physical limitations. It simply isn't sufficient for businesses that have high capacity, low latency needs, like a data center, or someone performing telesurgery, or someone who wants to use uncompressed HD video that requires 1.5Gbps to deliver a single stream. Not only that, we can't have achieve the President's wireless goal without a robust wireline infrastructure!

Rubbing salt in this wound was another quote from the President:

"We do big things."

If you go back to the wording of the President's last quote he says they will "make it possible for businesses to deploy the next generation of wireless..." To me that clearly refers to the FCC's efforts to free up more spectrum and help streamline the pole attachment agreement process.

Well according to my measuring stick, this represents just about the smallest thing government could be doing to help spur the deployment of 21st century broadband infrastructure.

Now, I'm not trying to knock these efforts, and I do respect that even accomplishing these smaller initiatives is important and going to take a huge amount of work. But compare America's "big thing" to Australia's "big thing" of investing tens of billions of dollars in a fiber network capable of offering 1Gbps to 93% of Australian homes and businesses.

If the President's committed to doing "big things" to insure that "new jobs and industries take root in this country" rather than "somewhere else" than why is he allowing the FCC to focus all their energy on such relatively small things?

And more to the point, why isn't our federal government paying any more attention to the crisis that communities across the US face in not having access to wireline infrastructure that delivers enough capacity at a low enough cost to enable them to "out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world"?

While I know not to expect much beyond broad rhetoric at state of the union addresses, I find it more than a little troubling that the President seems to think that wireless is a silver bullet to all our broadband needs.

On a final and related note, I've also found it rather bizarre at how others are interpreting his remarks. I've read an incredible number of articles and press releases touting the President's support for broadband. Well a quick search shows that he didn't even use the word "broadband" in his speech. Also worthing mentioning is that there was no mention of net neutrality either.

So while the President took the time to talk about all the good things that broadband and the Internet can deliver to the country, he fell short of laying out a plan to realize all this potential.

If somehow someone's reading this article in the President's administration I ask only one thing: can we please stop talking in flowery generalities and start getting down to the business of what it's going to take to "win the future" as the President has called for us to do?

Because if that's our goal, then we can't continue ignoring the need for our country's wireline infrastructure to be world-leading just as we need the same from our wireless.

Over the weekend, my team executed the second phase of our experiment in building the future of fiber-powered public media in Lafayette, LA: delivering live high quality video from the Acadiana Center for the Arts (ACA) both out to the web but also to TV sets across our region through Acadiana Open Channel (AOC).

It used to be that getting live video from an event onto a TV screen was a big ordeal, requiring satellite trucks and lots of expensive and complicated equipment. On Saturday we proved that in a world with fiber, it doesn't need to be that difficult.

What made this experiment possible is the LUSFiber intranet, a 100Mbps symmetrical community-wide LAN that every LUSFiber subscriber has access to for free.

Using this intranet we were able to deliver a 5-7Mbps standard definition stream from ACA (Lafayette's new world-class performing arts facility) to AOC (Lafayette's public media leader) and then out over AOC's public access channel through both LUSFiber and COX's cable TV systems.

Now, it took some hard work on the part of many dedicated individuals to make everything stream seamlessly, but the end result is a low cost solution that portends a new future for civic engagement.

I refer to a "new future for civic engagement" as during the run up to this Netcast project (distinguishing it from "webcast" which means streaming to the Internet) we actually had the encoder plugged in and delivering video from someone's house in Lafayette. While the video wasn't going out through AOC's TV channel, it easily could have.

What this means is that we're nearing the point whereby anyone can deliver live video from their event not just to the Internet but also to TV sets in their area.

And this future is where FiberCorps is aiming to take this Netcast project. Our next major milestones for this project are:

- Deliver live HD video to TV sets
- Deliver the stream to other communities across the US
- Develop a black box to make netcasting easy for anyone in the community

While we have a clear path for how to move this project forward, we shouldn't ignore the significance of what's already happened.

During the first phase of this project when we tried this out at another event in December, it was the first time any event had been webcast or netcast from ACA. And while that event (Medicine Show 14) had been broadcast via radio and online for years, it was the first time it'd be broadcast using video.

Perhaps summing it up best, Ed Bowie, AOC's executive director, referred to this as "the most momentous day for AOC since we opened the doors" as he sees the significance of what this could mean for redefining what public media can mean in a fiber-powered community like Lafayette.

As a reminder, FiberCorps is the new non-profit I moved to Cajun Country to start up. Our mission is to energize the Lafayette community to be a hub for fiber-powered innovation.

But this project could not have happened without the support of our local partners: AOC, ACA, Louisiana Crossroads, LUSFiber, and the hard-working volunteers who helped make the broadcast possible.

This is but one of many projects FiberCorps is working on in our continuing efforts to showcase and foster fiber-powered innovation in Lafayette. So look forward to hearing more from me here on App-Rising.com, and later this week we'll be launching our new site at FiberCorps.com where you can keep up to date on all the latest exciting happenings going on down in Lafayette.

An idea's been germinating in me for the last few months that I want to share today for how south Louisiana can be transformed into a new research triangle for digital media, and in particular why Google should strongly consider focusing its Google Fiber efforts on this area.

The basic thesis is simple: if Google were to wire New Orleans and Baton Rouge with fiber, when combined with Lafayette we could enable a new research triangle for digital media.

The vision is that by combining Lafayette's early-mover advantage, wildcatter mentality, and the work we're doing with FiberCorps to spur innovation; along with New Orleans' creative entrepreneurial spirit, national notoriety, and clear needs for help reestablishing itself after Katrina; and roll in Baton Rouge's position as the center of government, the government's emphasis on supporting digital media as a key driver of economic development, as well as the city being the hub for higher ed in the state through LSU, we have all the pieces needed to create a dynamic, collaborative, multifaceted effort to bring to bear on tackling the challenge of driving fiber-powered innovation.

This would be the kind of strategic, long-term thinking I'm hoping Google's employing as they go through their decision making process on which communities to choose. My fear is that they'll pick a couple of disconnected cities and build more islands of connectivity that while they might influence the trajectory of the country, the networks themselves won't have much long-term impact beyond their geographic boundaries.

The reality is that we don't need more islands of connectivity. We already have forty plus cities with fiber in the US that are totally disconnected with very little collaboration happening between them on figuring out what to do with these networks now that they're built.

What we need are more efforts to think strategically from a national perspective about how to foster greater collaboration to realization the potential for innovation locked up in this 21st century communications infrastructure. And I really think that this digital media research triangle concept in south Louisiana is a clear path for achieving this.

So much so that this blog post is aimed not just at Google but also at the state of Louisiana. Digital Media is the industry that's been identified as having the greatest potential for creating jobs in Louisiana in the 21st century. At the same time, I'd argue that fiber networks are the infrastructure with the greatest potential to enable the creation of digital media jobs.

So regardless of what happens with Google, it behooves us as a state to strongly consider the possibility of embarking on an even bolder plan of attack than has already been pursued. While budgets are tight, the money's there to do this, especially if there was a way to combine state, city, and private dollars. The only thing missing is the will to do so and a plan for accomplishing it. But these are both things that can be mustered up with the right people convinced of the vision for what can be done.

At a time of economic uncertainty, our need for visionary plans for how to right our economy has never been greater. The path towards economic success in the 21st century is clear, and will be built in those cities who have found some way to get equipped with the 21st century infrastructure that is fiber.

So whether it's Google, the state, the cities themselves, concerned individuals, or some combination therein, the time is now to realize the opportunity we have to not just hope for a better future but to actually build it by taking what's worked in the past in areas like North Carolina and applying it to the industry that we know matters most moving forward.

So let's find some way to all come together and transform the south Louisiana we know and love into a digital media research triangle for the 21st century.

And as a PS to Google: I promise you there are few, if any, other areas in the country where you could build your fiber that you'd want to actually spend time in more than south Louisiana. If you decide to come down our way, I promise we'll deliver a combination of food, drink, music, outdoor fun, and merry making that you can't find anywhere else with some of the best people on the planet. Just let us know when you're coming so we can make sure to have a big pot of gumbo waiting for you when you arrive!

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This page is an archive of entries from January 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

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