Can broadband plan connect the dots?

National plan runs into funding and technology barriers, although there are some local successes

President Barack Obama threw coals underneath what was already a brewing cauldron during his recent State of the Union address when he called for all Americans to have access to high-speed broadband Internet connections.

From the technology required to funding, there are a number of challenges to developing this critical piece of infrastructure in the United States. The plan is coming from the top, but in some cases local efforts are suceeding on their own, as in Keene, N.Y.

The directive for ubiquitous broadband comes from Congress as a segment of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 (the National Broadband Stimulus), which ordered the Federal Communications Commission to put together a National Broadband Plan. The FCC delivered its plan in March 2010 and since then the process for bringing high-quality Internet to the people has been hotly debated in policy and technology circles.

A debate between the architect of the National Broadband Plan (NBP), Blair Levin, and a broadband industry consultant, Craig Settles, took place at the New American Foundation in downtown D.C. Feb. 7, where a clearer picture of the concerns over the plan took shape. The event was co-hosted by technology blog GigaOm, where Levin and Settles had been trading criticisms in a series of submitted articles. See the video of the discussion here.

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The most notable issues, of course, involve money. ARRA commissioned $7.2 billion (to upwards of $9 billion) for broadband development. Much of this money has been distributed by the FCC, the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) and the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). There is also the Universal Service Fund (USF) created by the U.S. Telecommunications Act of 1996 and administered by the Universal Services Administrative Company. Funding for the USF comes from telecommunications providers through taxing of phone, Internet and cable bills to consumers.

“The Universal Service Fund is broken,” Rep. Terry Lee (R-Neb.) said, according to a tweet from the FCC. “It must be fixed – modernized and streamlined,” the tweet finished.

On Feb. 8 at an FCC open meeting, the commission voted on the proposal to transform the Universal Service Fund and Intercarrier Compensation rules from programs designed to support 20th century voice networks to a force for expansion of 21st-century fixed and mobile broadband and voice networks, while eliminating waste and inefficiency, according to the FCC’s blog. The ruling would help build the Connect America Fund to accomplish these goals.

The RUS had distributed approximately $2.6 billion to broadband initiatives through 126 plans in 38 states as of August 2010.

The NBP was originally slated to cost $33 billion but the actual amount has become nebulous as numbers get bandied about. Part of the original number supposedly factored is $14 billion that would only go to the last 250,000 households in the plan, a high cost because of terrain difficulties in extending networks to remote areas.

“If you look at the last 250,000 homes, it was about $14 billion of it,” Levin said at the New American Foundation debate. “Huge cost to it. And we were comfortable saying that we think that could be done later or by satellite or whatever. We are just not going to have a plan for that. So, then we had a gap of about $10 billion and we found a way to cut about $15 billion from the existing system over a 10-year period, which would pay for what we suggested to do.”

Part of the NBP calls for subsidies to poor areas to help pay for broadband from the USF. Settles does not think that giving each resident $10, for instance, is an effective way to address the situation. Settles argued that each community should be able take that subsidy money in a pool of sorts and figure out exactly what its needs are and work with the telecommunications companies to figure out a plan.

“We are talking cities, towns and counties,” Settles said. “Or it could be a group of towns or a group of counties. But, it doesn't have to be the local governments. It could be the businesses come together and form a co-op. It could be that the government owns the network.”

The ways and means of connecting the country to acceptable broadband, which the NBP defines as 4 megabits/sec downlink and 1 megabit/sec uplink, is a secondary argument at this point until the issues surrounding the ARRA and USF are figured out.

There are definite challenges to bringing better broadband to rural areas but also increasing the speed of broadband in cities and suburban areas. Yet, even to some of the most remote places, $14 billion for 250,000 connections sounds extraordinary.

“There are some pretty remote homes in this country and even if you were to lay fiber or copper wires to get there it sure could get expensive,” said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting. “On the other hand there are plenty of other ways to get broadband into remote areas other than laying end-to-end fiber. You can use direct satellite broadcasts ... there are a lot of options there now. I think it would certainly be surprising to see those taken to the literal letter of the law where you would have to make those type of a advancements to Alaska, Caribou, Maine, Hawaii, et cetera.”

There are a variety of ways to bring broadband to a home (rural or otherwise) and some work better in certain areas than others. The primary ways the Internet is connected these days is through fiber and copper lines that often run along railway tracks. That is one of the reasons that Chattanooga, Tenn., has some of the fastest broadband service in the country (up to 150 megabits/sec actual downlink speeds). It is a rail hub. Note that a lot of data centers, basically warehouses of servers, are built near railway stations.

The problem of creating trunks and branches of fiber and older generation metal connections becomes significant depending on the terrain. Fiber To The Premises (FTTP) is not always feasible, especially if you live on a remote island in Hawaii, for instance. In reality, it might just not be cost-efficient to bring broadband service to some people.

Wireless communications advances, such as Long Term Evolution (LTE), WiMax and High Speed Packet Access-plus (HSPA+) are still in the early stages of development and implementation, and are more tied to large telecommunications companies' bottom lines (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile) than they are to anything the FCC can mandate. Also, the problem with wireless is that signal strength degrades the further from the nodes on the tower and is also subject to signal degradation in various terrains. People living far from towers might think they are getting broadband services but in reality those rates (such as 12 megabits/sec downlink for WiMax near a base station) don't exist for them.

The satellite communications industry becomes one of the more cost-efficient in this case and advances, such as Hughes Networks Spaceway 3 satellite and perhaps later technology derived from Cisco’s Internet Router In Space (IRIS) program, will be the best value to those in remote areas.

There are examples of towns coming together to create broadband initiatives. Settles pointed out a number of localities that have worked with a regional telecommunications company at the New American Foundation event and specifically mentioned Keene, N.Y., in the Adirondack Mountains as a town with a unique challenge that solved it without federal intervention.

“Keene, N.Y., is a good example,” Settles said. “The town got together and said that we want these broadband services, no. 1. No. 2, we want to save our telecom company from struggling because it is a local company and if we can save them by somehow paying them to build a network then that means the service is still a local service even if it is privately held. The people who lived there literally passed the hat, they took up a community collection to raise money for the telco to start building a broadband network.”

Keene, a town of roughly 1,000 homes and businesses, raised approximately $563,000 to bring broadband, primarily, to every home that had a student or teacher in its school system. The details of Keene’s plan can be found here, but essentially the town banded together to raise money for the local Internet Service Provider with private donations and construction fees (42 percent and 23 percent of overall funding) mixed with state development funding (17 percent) and a partnership with the local telecommunications company -- Keene Valley Video and Internet (19 percent).

In creating the project itself, Keene was able to keep the cost of T1 (“last mile”) fiber connections down by being cost conscious with material and using non-union labor. As a result, miles of coax lines were laid at a cost of about $11,500 a mile, or about a third of the federal estimation of $36,000 a mile. The town hopes that its example, which was four years in planning and implementing, can be an example for other rural areas in the country.

Outside of implementation, Levin argues that there is more to bringing broadband to the people than just raw data speeds. After all, the goal of 4 megabits/sec down down and 1 megabit/sec up is really not that fast in comparison to urban areas that can see more than 25 times those rates. Where Levin and Settles agree is that areas should have the infrastructure but also the knowledge and planning of what they want to do with broadband.

“I would say that the thing we are going for is a ubiquitous, diverse and constantly evolving ecosystem of networks, applications, devices and, most important, perhaps forgotten in it all, are people who know how to use it,” Levin said.

About the Author

Dan Rowinski is a staff reporter covering communications technologies.


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