THE FCC’S NATIONAL BROADBAND PLAN: NICE TRY, GUYS, BUT TEAR IT UP AND START OVER!
As everyone knows, the FCC has released a draft of their National Broadband Plan. Whoopee! They labored mightily, and they gave birth to a mouse. And probably a congenitally deformed mouse at that!
At least in its outline form, the plan is what you might expect from a panel of LEPs (Lawyers, Economists, and Politicians) running amok in telecommunications without significant engineering input. The Irish playwright Oscar Wilde perhaps provided the best understanding of the LEPs’ character when he said, “They know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” They certainly know the price of radio frequency spectrum — and their cash registers are warming up in eager anticipation. But they have no concept of its VALUE as a precious, non-renewable natural resource. They are all too prepared to “sell it off quick” so that everybody can make a buck from exploiting it, without regard to its huge intrinsic value when developed rationally and when used for tasks where only wireless can accomplish necessary goals.
The Plan represents two historical failures by the United States with respect to its telecommunications policy: the failure of past history involving both the FCC and the Big Carriers, and the forthcoming failure of future history should the plan be adopted substantially as proposed. This article will deal with the first failure and a subsequent post with the second. The major goal of the Plan is to establish a “21st Century Broadband Plan” for the United States. “That’s fine; it’s about time!” responds the Curmudgeon. “But why has it taken decades and a series of failures to get even to this basic first level?”
Well, let’s step back and have a look at the situation. Al Gore notwithstanding, the United States INVENTED the Internet! In 1969. At UCLA and Stanford Research Institute, where the first computer-to-computer digital communications network connection was made, launching what became, at first, the DARPA Net and then the Internet. The US started the race for global digital supremacy far in the lead. We “owned” the technology; the “bright promise of a digital future” (a slogan repurposed from an earlier initiative) was ours to win or to lose. And we did lose it!
By the time the DOD transferred control of its DARPA Net to civilian control in the 1990s we had built many of the elements of an addressable physical network, an established communications protocol for the network (TCP/IP), and a rudimentary application (MOSAIC/Netscape) for accessing the newly-named World Wide Web. What we didn’t have was a standardized, low-cost, universal (physical) access system for individual end users to get them onto the Internet. Or, “how do I plug into the Web?”
This is the point where the US government bobbled matters badly with its first failure in Internet telecommunications policy. It could (and should) have stepped in, saying “we see an important and growing need to connect our nation’s population via this new medium [by the way, this is exactly what they are saying now!], and we need to facilitate universal access to digital communications as we have already done with voice telephone communications.” Other countries (France, Britain) were already beginning this work. But the FCC (and the NTIA) was silent. There was no plan, no vision, not much national-level interest in developing what we as a country indeed had created.
So the task was left to the Big Carriers who, if not exactly frothing at the mouth with eagerness and a burning desire to create the “network of the future,” at least showed up to fill the gap. The companies that already had “wires into the home” began slowly to sense that they had both an opportunity and perhaps a responsibility to carry end-users’ digital communications onto the Internet.
But the Big Carriers provided no universal national plan for the “network of the future,” just unenthusiastic accommodation of end-user digital traffic on the voice network. However, the industry also ramped up their drumbeat to the public (amplified with heavy lobbying to Congress), “We are private enterprise, the appointed guardians of the Free Market. We can do it faster/better/cheaper than anyone else. Keep the Free Market untethered and “the invisible hand” will inherently and unerringly pick the winners and losers. Everyone will benefit from increased competition, with better products and service, lower costs, more innovation! Just don’t let Big Bad Government capture what we were uniquely put on earth to do!” Lots of good rhetoric, but “like real slow action like, ya’ know.”
Now, twenty years after we muffed the challenge, let’s stop and see where the US stands. Left untethered, the telecommunications industry has given us a “national broadband digital network” which, compared with the rest of the developed industrial world, is decidedly not universal in customer coverage, is (relatively) slow, and is among the most costly on earth to use! According to the BBC, the US is about in the middle of the group of industrialized countries in the percentage of its population that is now using broadband communications. While other industrialized countries (Japan, South Korea, the UK, etc.) forge ahead toward universal broadband fiber networks, the US responds with occasionally laying some customer fiber, some general “hopes” for the future, and (to date) no national plan!
To be unflatteringly blunt about it, the current state of development of the United States “digital highway” would be something one might expect to find in a developing Third World country! If an agency of the US federal government had designed and implemented our present network, that agency would be roundly and severely criticized. AND RIGHTLY SO! With the government’s failure to plan, the Big Carriers, left alone to write the rules and to chart their own courses, did the predictable: they minimized their risks, maximized their profits, sought government tax breaks and subsidies, lobbied for restriction of potential competition, and provided indifferent and costly service to customers who had little other choice. This “vital, creative sector of the nation” passed up the opportunity, as an industry, to design and to create the “broadband highway” for the country!
Well Big Carriers, you trumpeted that you had a hammerlock on creativity, on efficiency, on productivity, and on innovation. You argued to allow industry consolidation to proceed unhindered, saying that even better things will come from it. You said that the Free Market just needed to be left undisturbed while all the vital juices percolated and fizzed, and then all kinds of new processes, products, and services would spring forth in dizzying abundance. So the consolidated Free Market was left undisturbed. And the result? The country has fallen behind much of the industrialized world, even to the point where the government has finally felt the imperative to take over the planning.
Thus in the light of all this past history, rhetoric, and missed opportunities the Curmudgeon challenges the FCC and the Big Carriers to answer a single simple question:
“Where’s the beef?”
“Let’s keep the universe safe for RF”
The Old RF Curmudgeon