The fastest way to speedy networks: ignore Uncle Sam

April 15, 2013

When we were working on the National Broadband Plan, which was released in 2010, we were dismayed to learn that not one American city had made it to the list of “fastest cities in the world” – and worse, there was no prospect of any joining the list in the foreseeable future.

This obviously concerned us, as that list means far more than simply being fast. As our analysis suggested, America needs a critical mass of communities with world-leading bandwidth in order to develop the human capital required to design, build, operate and, above all, innovate on top of the best networks in the world.

Thankfully, it  looks like that list is finally about to get a little more red, white and blue.

The key to boosting economic development

Last week’s announcement that Google is bringing its Google Fiber product to Austin, the news that the North Carolina Next Generation Network (NC NGN) project had eight bidders, and similar projects in communities including Chattanooga, Chicago, Seattle and Gainesville, suggest that local leaders are starting to crack the code for how to drive network upgrades in their communities.

What these efforts have in common is leadership that understands that world-leading connectivity is the foundation for future economic development and competitiveness. Though still nascent, anecdotal evidence is mounting of success stories, from the bond rating increase Kansas City received (thanks in part to Google Fiber), to the miraculous turnaround of Chattanooga, which as Tom Friedman reports has changed the city from “a slowly declining and deflating urban balloon, to one of the fastest-growing cities in Tennessee.”

Local leaders are learning to build agreements with private enterprise that work for both the private and public interests. These efforts lower deployment and operating costs as well as risk, while at the same time creating numerous public benefits including attractive service levels and reasonable consumer pricing. These agreements, in effect, are new versions of the social contracts that enabled phone companies and cable companies to build out their networks in the last century.

While the network upgrade may seem to be only about speed, in actuality it will also drive other public improvements as well. Expectations are that the upgrade Kansas City is now enjoying will result in increased adoption of information technologies, more effective government use of broadband for education, health care, public safety and other public goods – as well as creating competition.

Of course, this is a dance in which it takes “two to tango,”  and it would not work without private sector entities willing to find a way to provide abundant bandwidth. Google deserves much praise for leading the charge, and the fact that the Research Triangle’s NC NGN project received a number of bids –  including from the incumbent cable provider Time Warner Cable – suggests others are finally starting to figure out the new math.

Local leaders can’t wait for federal moves

Federal policymakers certainly understand the importance of faster networks, but as a recent workshop at the FCC demonstrated: The federal government’s actions, other than a one-time Recovery Act investment, have been neutral, at best, and probably negative.  There are positive steps that can, and should, be taken.

Sen, Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) wisely noted that the E-rate program – which delivers bandwidth to schools and libraries – should be updated to provide gigabit connectivity to the classroom. This program could be structured to catalyze broader community upgrades.  Other federal agencies can be enlisted to support community efforts in ways that will not cost taxpayers more but will result in better services.

Unfortunately, as we discussed in a recent speech, the federal government seems ill equipped to approach the opportunity with the analytic, experimental, action-oriented frame of mind that we see in the Gig.U communities. We are hopeful that with new leadership coming to the FCC, this will improve. To date, however, it has been local leadership in partnership with companies willing to invest ahead of the current market that is driving the engine for American leadership in a big bandwidth economy.

For gardeners everywhere spring’s arrival is a time for new beginnings and hope; fail to tend to your garden, however, and you don’t get to harvest.  So it is with bandwidth: There is still much to do, the projects that are underway still have hurdles to cross, more communities need to consider how existing projects chart a path for their community, and the federal government must figure out how to move beyond rhetorical support. But now we are finally taking the first steps, have seedlings taking root. With a little luck, they will flourish and spread at gigabit speed.

Blair Levin is the Executive Director of the University Community Next Generation Innovation Project, or Gig.U; he led the development of the National Broadband Plan in 2010 for the Federal Communications Commission. Ellen Satterwhite is Program Director at Gig. U; follow her on Twitter @esatts.

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