Making Broadband Access Available and Affordable for all in the U.S.

Abstract

Professor Allen Hammond, Director of the Broadband Institute of California, offers a perspective on the importance of broadband access and a prescription for making it available and affordable for all U.S. residents.  Recommendations for Digital Inclusion, U.S. Broadband Policy, a national wireless network, funding and measurement tools are also included in this interview. 

Introduction

Most of us take broadband Internet access for granted.  We watch videos, play music, multi-media games, upload and download large files without even thinking about it.  But not everyone in the U.S. is that fortunate.  A large number of the U.S. population lives in rural or “underserved” areas where broadband access is not available.  Many low income, inner city residents can’t afford cable or DSL based broadband access.   And municipal wireless networks that were promised to provide such access for cities and counties have been delayed or cancelled. 

Those without affordable access to broadband are at a competitive disadvantage; they are at risk of being marginalized and left behind, as more and more mandatory services migrate to the broadband Internet.  Today, most skilled jobs require PC and web based interfacing skills, which are more likely to be learned by those that have broadband Internet access.  Government services (such as Unemployment and Disability claims), education and training (including webinars), health care, travel information, and banking are offered on-line and have become pervasive on the web.  But without broadband access, these services are not conveniently or easily available.  What if you’re bank branch office has been recently closed and you’re told to do most of your banking on-line?  What if you’re applying for a job that requires web surfing, quick access to information, uploading or downloading .ppt or zip files from web sites?  Not good if you don’t have broadband Internet access or related skills.  Those that don’t will be left behind. 

Professor Hammond firmly believes that “Broadband access is a civil rights issue.”  It should not matter if one lives in a sparsely populated or rural area, an inner city, or a suburb.  Rich or poor shouldn’t matter either.  Broadband access should be made available to all that want it at affordable rates.

What’s Digital Inclusion and Why Is It Important?

The Wired for Wireless? Summary Report1uses the term “Digital Inclusion” to denote the ability of everyone to have access to broadband and the related information technology. Specifically it states: “Digital Inclusion means that everyone — regardless of who they are or where they live — can participate in and take advantage of the economic, educational, health, and civic opportunities afforded by broadband and related information technology. 

More than just access to the Internet, Digital Inclusion means that all stakeholders are engaged in the planning and implementation of technology systems; that all potential users can access the technology and know how to use it; and that with these technologies come more services, increased information, and greater community access. As digital technology is increasingly used for educational, employment, health, commercial, and informational purposes, Digital Inclusion is critical for full engagement, participation, and opportunity in the social, economic, and civic life of society.” 

The report found that “wireless networks are effectively supporting government operations and services. Wireless technology is being used for a large range of government tasks: traffic light control, meter reading, data transport from regional offices to headquarters, video surveillance, communication between emergency vehicles, and much more. These projects have proven successful when jurisdictions commit funding toward the deployment and maintenance of the network.   Project research indicates that many local governments in California pursued or are pursuing a wireless network in order to bring broadband access to underserved communities. In most of these cases, the wireless networks were intended to enhance or fill in gaps left by existing deployment.”  However, the deployment of most of those CA municipal wireless networks, e.g. Wireless Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Fresno, etc have gone into hibernation status or they’re just plain dead.

U.S. Government Broadband Stimulus and Plan

The U.S. is one of the few developed countries that does not have a national broadband plan and up till this year, has done little to accelerate or drive broadband deployment.  The federal government has taken the position that broadband Internet is the job of the private sector.  This is in sharp contrast to the public sector build out of roads, highways and bridges.   

On February 17th, 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act) became law.  This was the government’s first step to making broadband more available in the U.S.  In particular, the Act allocated $7.2 billion in grant and loan funds for broadband build-outs.   

Details:  The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will administer $4.7B, while the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) will control $2.5B.  Wire-line, unlicensed wireless broadband (WISPs), and high-speed cellular data service are all eligible for grants and/or loans.  Companies can tap into one, but not both of these pools of funds, if their application is approved by the respective government agency (NTIA or RUS).  The RUS funds, to be awarded by Sept. 30th of this year, focus more on rural broadband access, requiring that at least 75 percent of an area receiving funds be in a rural area without sufficient high-speed broadband access.  The RUS will give priority to projects that give consumers a choice of more than one service provider.  The final version of the bill maintains that projects funded by NTIA must adhere to "nondiscrimination and openness principles." The funds must be dispersed before September 30, 2010, to projects that can be completed within two years.   

Applications: The federal government recently published a database containing information about the nearly 2,200 broadband stimulus applications it received that combined total $28 billion —representing nearly seven times the amount of money available.  The database -www.broadbandusa.gov    – contains nearly 180 applications from California entities, including government, tribal and nonprofit agencies and private for-profit companies. The total dollar value of the grant and loan requests is more than $2.5 billion, more than double the roughly $1 billion that officials hope the state can get. 

The Plan:  Under the Recovery Act, the FCC has been tasked with creating a National Broadband Plan by February 17, 2010 (one full year later). The Recovery Act states that the National Broadband Plan shall seek to ensure all people of the United States have access to broadband capability and shall establish benchmarks for meeting that goal.  According to the FCC, the plan is expected to address broadband deployment, adoption, and affordability.  It will specify the use of broadband to advance solutions to national priorities, including health care, education, energy efficiency, public safety, job creation, investment, and others.   FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told Reuters in July that broadband was the "the major infrastructure challenge of our generation."

 

Definitions are Problematic

A huge problem with crafting a comprehensive and inclusive National Broadband Plan is that there are currently no acceptable definitions for critically important terms: “broadband,” “underserved,” or even “unserved” areas.    

The term broadband commonly refers to high-speed Internet access.   A 2008 study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that the United States ranked 19thin Internet access speed, with an advertised rate of 9.6 megabytes per second (mbps). The top three countries were Japan with 92.8 Mbps, Korea with 80.8 Mbps and France with 51 Mbps. 

The FCC defines broadband service as data transmission speeds exceeding 200 kilobits per second (Kbps), or 200,000 bits per second, in at least one direction: downstream (from the Internet to the user’s computer) or upstream (from the user’s computer to the Internet).  Please refer to: http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/broadband.html 

But many feel that definition is inadequate and the speeds should be much higher (e.g. in multiple M bps).  Free Press, a public interest group, urged Congress and the FCC to set the bar high and to consider broadband as a critical infrastructure.  In its submission, Free Press urged the FCC to use a definition with a minimum upstream and downstream speed of at least 5M bps for each end user.   Conversely, Verizon Communications and AT&T recently argued that the government’s definition of "broadband" should encompass how people actually use the Internet and what services they can afford.   In comments to the FCC, Verizon suggested 0.768 megabits-per-second downstream as a minimum bar.2   

The “Zip Code” method of determining if broadband is available in a given area is very contentious and flawed to many experts3.   Determining broadband penetration is crucial to defining “unserved” and “underserved”  areas.    Prior definitions of Broadband, and "served area" in the U.S. have been deceptive at best.  Historically, residents of a zip code were said to be in a "served area" if only a single subscriber in that zip code had broadband access.  This distorts the U.S. availability numbers and paints a deceptively positive picture.   

Meanwhile, AT&T stated in its comment letter to the FCC: "The definition must include those services that Americans actually need and want — and can afford — to participate in the Internet-driven economy." AT&T Inc also said that “unserved” Americans do not necessarily seek out bandwidth-heavy applications like VoIP or streaming video.  As expected, AT&T did not substantiate that claim.   

Author’s Note:  According to Pew Research, 38% of rural Americans have broadband, which implies that 62% don’t.  The rural or underserved includes 12M households and 35M people in the U.S.    

Once definitions have been agreed upon, the FCC will be in a better position to draft the plan, which will not necessarily be rubber stamped by Congress when it’s submitted in February 2010.  Underscoring its importance, FCC Chairman Genachowski recently stated, “Developing the National Broadband Plan will require enormous effort on the part of dozens of current FCC staff that will be enlisted to contribute their talents, ideas, and insights for this initiative. And I am delighted by the decision of so many of others to set aside their successful ventures in the private sector to also join in serving the public interest. Broadband is our generation’s major infrastructure challenge and it is a top priority to craft a National Broadband Plan that will unlock opportunity, foster innovation and investment, and improve the lives of all Americans.” 

Prescription for Universal Broadband Access in the U.S. 

In our interview, Professor Hammond detailed several key recommendations for making broadband access pervasive and affordable to all living in the U.S.  These include: 

  1. Federal government should release the White Space spectrum (the unused portions of the new digital TV frequency bands- up to 700 MHz) for unlicensed Broadband Wireless Access (BWA).  The spectrum released should have good signal propagation characteristics in order to penetrate trees and buildings in the signal path.  The cost to procure that spectrum needs to be low or zero to encourage smaller network providers.  Regulatory barriers should be removed from the process of operating and maintaining such BWA networks.
  2. Other spectrum suitable for BWA should be made available by the federal government to instigate the build-out of broadband wireless networks.  Public-private partnerships should be encouraged to build such networks (see 5.  below for details).  Regulatory barriers should be relaxed.

    Author’s Note:  This author believes the FCC’s 700 MHz auction in March 2008 was a not a success; partially because there were no new network operators, no new national networks, and no public-private partnerships that were created to build competitive broadband wireless networks.  

  1. A national “web of wireless networks” should be created that can be used in responding to emergencies such as earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, floods, tornados, national security threats, etc.  The federal government should encourage inter-connection and interoperability of the multiple heterogeneous municipal wireless networks that already exist.  By interconnecting such networks and developing compatible network equipment, the U.S. can automate and co-ordinate the response to many different types of emergencies and security threats.  After the Hurricane Katrina failures, most of us can appreciate the necessity of a quick, automated response to emergencies, where information is transmitted and shared over high-speed broadband wireless networks.  Such a national network would be most valuable to the Dept of Homeland Security.
  2. The FCC should develop effective tools and metrics to measure broadband deployments,  penetration and assets.  One would hope that this will be a deliverable output of the National Broadband Plan discussed previously in this article.  Currently, the FCC or outside measurement organizations are terribly deficient (see the reference in footnote 3).
  3. The National Broadband Plan should not prohibit municipal and private business joint ventures to build broadband networks.  Rather, they should be encouraged.  In such partnerships, the city becomes the anchor tenant while a private carrier builds out the network.  There should be a significant number of city government entities that use the network to establish a critical mass of subscribers and traffic.  

    In the past, large incumbent telcos (e.g. Verizon) argued that building such a public- private network would discriminate against them.  Prof. Hammond believes that the FCC and federal government should demand actual proof of such discrimination, rather than tacitly accept the assumptions of the incumbent network provider.   Regulatory barriers should be dismantled for broadband network build-outs.    As a case in point, Allen notes that MSO’s and incumbent telcos lobbied their opposition against municipal wireless networks to state legislatures.  As a result, at least 16 states prohibited or severely restricted municipalities from building wireless networks.

  4. Stipulate funding mechanisms (beyond the Broadband Stimulus bill), which are needed for broadband network construction, operation, and maintenance as well as subsidies to low income residents.  Prof. Hammond has two ideas for such funding:

    A]  Redefine the Universal Service Fund (USF) to include broadband access.  Specifically, to expand the size of an existing broadband network so it reaches more people and to subsidize those folks who could otherwise not afford a broadband access subscription and equipment. 

    Author’s Note:  Currently, the USF, administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC),  is maintained through contributions made by telecommunications providers across the country.  The USF is disbursed based on four primary support programs.  Those are:  low income (basic local phone service, AKA lifeline service), schools and libraries, high cost areas, rural health care providers.  The primary participants in the High Cost program are rural and non-rural incumbent local exchange carriers and competitors that serve customer lines in the service areas of incumbent carriers.  There are no formal proposals we are aware of to extend the USF to encompass broadband access as recommended by Prof. Hammond.

    B]  Assess a “Network Effect” charge on everyone’s broadband Internet service bill.  That charge would help subsidize broadband network build-outs (in “unserved” and “underserved” areas) and to lower the price for those that can least afford broadband service living in either rural or urban areas.   

    Author’s Note:  In theory, a network becomes more valuable as more people use it and provide or share information.  This is sometimes referred to as “Metcalf’s law,” after Ethernet inventor Robert Metcalf. 

    Closing Comment on Wireless Technologies 

    While Professor Hammond did not specifically recommend or reject any wireless networking technologies, he did note that long range WiFi had experienced problems with penetration (especially trees) and interference (due to its unlicensed operation).  He thought that WiMAX (IEEE 802.16d or e) had much better promise as a broadband wireless network, because of its greater distance of up to 30 miles, licensed operation (which eliminates most interference), and deterministic MAC protocol (which resolves contention problems).    

    IEEE 802.22 WRAN is the standard in progress that would be used for a BWA network operating over “white space” spectrum.   The 802.22 Working Group has the charter to develop a standard for a cognitive radio-based PHY/MAC air interface for use by license-exempt (unlicensed) devices on a non-interfering basis in spectrum that is allocated to the TV Broadcast Service.

About Professor ALLEN S. HAMMOND IV

Allen holds the Phil and Bobbie Sanfilippo Chair at Santa Clara University. A Professor at Santa Clara Law since 1998, he serves as the founding director of the Broadband Institute of California and the director of public policy for the Center for Science Technology and Society at Santa Clara University.  He is a former President of the Alliance for Public Technology, and is past chair and boardmember of the AT&T Telecommunications Consumer Advisory Panel. He is the author of many articles and the editor, with Barbara S. Cherry and Stephen S. Wildman, of Making Universal Service Policy: Enhancing the Process Through Multidisciplinary Evaluation (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999). He earned his J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, his M.A. from the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, and his B.A. from Grinnel College. 

Appendix (from the FCC):  WHY IS BROADBAND IMPORTANT?

Broadband can provide you with the technical capability to access a wide range of resources, services, and products that can enhance your life in a variety of ways. These resources, services, and products include, but are not limited to:

  • Education, Culture, & Entertainment
    • Broadband can overcome geographical and financial barriers to provide access to a wide range of educational, cultural, and recreational opportunities and resources.
  • Telehealth & Telemedicine
    • Broadband can facilitate provision of medical care to unserved and underserved populations through remote diagnosis, treatment, monitoring, and consultations with specialists.
  • Economic Development/E-Commerce
    • Broadband can promote economic development and revitalization through electronic commerce (e-commerce) by:
      • Creating new jobs and attracting new industries.
      • Providing access to regional, national, and worldwide markets.
  • Electronic Government (E-Government)
    • Electronic government can help streamline people’s interaction with government agencies, and provide information about government policies, procedures, benefits, and programs.
  • Public Safety and Homeland Security
    • Broadband can help protect the public by facilitating and promoting public safety information and procedures, including, but not limited to:
      • Early warning/public alert systems and disaster preparation programs.
      • Remote security monitoring and real time security background checks.
      • Backup systems for public safety communications networks.
  • Broadband Communications Services
    • Broadband provides access to new telecommunications technologies such as Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) allowing voice communication using the Internet.
  • Communications Services for People With Disabilities
    • Broadband permits users of Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS) to use Video Relay Services (VRS) to communicate more easily, quickly, and expressively with voice telephone users. 

    BROADBAND IN RURAL AREAS (from the FCC): 

    Because of relatively low population density, topographical barriers, and greater geographical distances, broadband service may be more difficult to obtain in some rural areas. In attempting to address these challenges, some rural communities have found it helpful to develop a strategic plan for broadband deployment that includes creating a comprehensive business proposal to broadband providers. Such a plan, for example, could demonstrate to broadband providers that deployment is a sound business decision that would benefit both the providers and the community. This strategic planning process may include, but is not limited to, the following elements and strategies: 

  • Educating the community about the potential benefits of broadband service.
  • Creating partnerships among community organizations and institutions that might benefit from broadband deployment.
  • Systematic assessment and prioritization of the community’s needs for broadband service.
  • Aggregating (consolidating) demand within the community to make service profitable for broadband providers. Participants may include, but are not limited to, individual consumers, businesses, educational institutions, health care facilities, and government agencies.
  • Identifying an anchor tenant with adequate demand to spur infrastructure investment in broadband

 Endnotes:

1) Wired for Wireless? Towards Digital Inclusion and Next Generation Government led Wireless Networks, A Summary Report of the Wireless Comparative Analysis and Best Practices Education Project- 2008.

2) Internet providers seek low broadband bar.

3) The FCCs 3rd Report on Broadband Deployment- Inequitable, Untimely, and Unreasonable, by Allen D. Hammond, Hastings Communications and Entertainment Law Journal – Summer 2002.
 

6 comments for “Making Broadband Access Available and Affordable for all in the U.S.

  1. October 20, 2009 at 9:25 pm

    As it continues to develop its National Broadband Plan (NBP) due to Congress in February, the FCC wants public input on a study conducted by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society about worldwide broadband usage.

    Under the auspices of the Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the FCC began constructing the NBP, an initiative set on ensuring that every American can get access to high speed broadband Internet services.

    In July, the FCC asked Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society to examine studies about worldwide broadband usage. One of the ‘most surprising and significant findings’ was the emphasis on building open access broadband networks that various service providers can use, a policy that’s largely non-existent in the U.S. The Berkman study found that when incumbent service providers in studied countries opened their networks to competitors it helped develop their country’s market as well as create a blueprint for next-gen Internet access.

    For more information, see: FCC publishes draft broadband report
    http://www.telegeography.com/cu/article.php?article_id=30561&email=html

  2. September 25, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    It’s amazing to watch as the government, which has evolved into the largest protection racket known to the universe, takes more and more control and, in the process, continues to muck up everything in the country and most of the things on the planet and then listen to people cry out for more government intervention. If you’re on the government side of things, it looks great, but if you’re on the private side of things, which still involves 70% of a population that generates 70% of the economy, it doesn’t look so good, especially when the other 30% takes over 61% of everything produced to sustain themselves.

    The rural telecom industry maintains that it has already made broadband available to 95% of its serving areas at prices below $30 per month.If only 38% of the population in those serving areas has taken advantage, the problem is not one with the TelCos and it doesn’t demonstrate a need for government intervention in the Telecom industry. It’s a matter disinterest on the part of the population or a matter of economic oppression in which the government plays the largest role. The fact that broadband exists at reasonable prices in an area where only 38% of the population buys it is an economic feat of epic proportions.

    A TelCo’s access capabilities and outside plant are its private property belonging to the company and its owners. They do not belong to the public. Federally imposed net neutrality is government theft of private property and is prohibited by the Constitution and still against the law in all states.

  3. September 25, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    FCC Still Looking for Broadband Ideas

    The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is still looking for ideas on how to bring broadband to all corners of the U.S. and to increase subscriber numbers, said the director of the agency’s broadband project.
    The FCC is about midway through a year-long effort to create a national broadband plan, and Blair Levin, executive director of the FCC’s omnibus broadband initiative, said Tuesday he hopes he hasn’t heard all the good ideas yet. “There’s a lot of capacity for us to hear your good ideas,” Levin said during a broadband policy discussion hosted by the Media and Democracy Coalition and OneWebDay.

    http://www.pcworld.com/article/172409/fcc_still_looking_for_broadband_ideas.html?tk=rss_news

  4. September 25, 2009 at 9:28 am

    Some broadband projects self-fund without stimulus
    Ed Gubbins September 25th, 2009

    As broadband stimulus applicants vie for federal funding, plenty of government entities across the country are moving ahead with public/private partnerships that extend broadband without the need for grant money from Uncle Sam.

    In New York State, where 140 broadband stimulus projects were proposed seeking more than $1 billion (only California asked for more), one county expects to finish building a five-city fiber network around the time that stimulus recipients are getting their projects underway.

    “Everybody’s got their hands out for stimulus,” said Ed Hemminger, chief information officer for Ontario County and chief executive officer of the non-profit entity the county created to build the fiber network. “I’ve already got 60 miles of fiber.”

    http://blog.telephonyonline.com/unfiltered/2009/09/25/some-broadband-projects-self-fund-without-stimulus/

  5. September 23, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    Net Neutrality Opposed By State Legislators

    The American Legislative Exchange Council asserts that regulating wireless and wired carriers in the same manner is “likely unconstitutional.”

    http://www.informationweek.com/news/government/policy/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=220100907

  6. September 21, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    FCC wants to make net neutrality extend to wireless broadband.

    Good for consumers, bad for big wireless telcos (ATT, VZW)

    http://news.cnet.com/8301-30686_3-10357806-266.html

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