Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Concerns Raised by Broadband Element of Economic Recovery Plan

Original Article - IT Business Edge

The broadband element of the economic recovery legislation being cooked up in Congress is raising concerns among experts. It’s safe to say that it is difficult to fairly and efficiently dole out billion of dollars on the fly, especially when nobody is quite sure of what they are doing.

There is a lot of money on the table: The House dedicates $6 billion to broadband infrastructure in its measure, and the Senate bill provides $7 billion, down from the $9 billion in an earlier bill. The Senate bill stipulates that the money be administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce. The funds are split between the NTIA and the Department of Agriculture in the House version. [Editor's note: Numerous reports now say that the broadband element of the compromise bill agreed to by the House and Senate on February 11 calls for $7.2 billion to be allocated by the Department of Agriculture and the Commerce Department. If passed by the full Congress, the measure will be sent to President Obama and, if signed, become law.]

The core of the challenge seen by some broadband advocates is that the government is not accustomed to dealing with infrastructure that evolves so quickly. The dangers of doing so now are heightened because broadband issues won’t get the attention they deserve in the crisis atmosphere in which the legislation is being cobbled together.

The goal of the government isn’t primarily to build the best platforms. It’s to create jobs. “Shovel ready” projects may or may not coincide with what broadband experts think are the best approaches. That has people worried. “Are we going to be so intent on the short term that we screw up the long term?” asks Craig Settles, an analyst who specializes in municipal broadband deployments.

The final legislation, of course, will only be a rough outline of the reams of rules and regulations that will actually control how the law is interpreted. So far, the opinion among experts seems to be that a good faith effort is being made -- but that significant dangers lurk.

Femtocells, Not Asphalt

For decades, the operative analogy compared broadband to bridges, roads and other physical infrastructure. This is dangerous because procedures that are adequate (barely, in some cases) for transportation infrastructure just won’t do for systems that are more complex, have a greater number of options and become obsolete more quickly.

Conceptually equating a WiMax base station and a femtocell to a road and a bridge is a big problem, insiders feel. Geoff Daily, a member of The Rural Fiber Fund Working Group, says Congress “never really figured out what to do with broadband. It’s a very abstract concept to them. They are not able to take a pragmatic, sophisticated and nuanced approach because they don’t know what the goal is.”

The telecommunications and information technology industries have spent a couple of decades adjusting processes to new realities. For instance, the fact that there is no finalized 802.11n standard has not stopped the creation of a healthy industry segment around “draft N” products. This success was based on the recognition that 802.11 technology was moving much faster than stodgy, decades-old standards processes. Such flexible thinking doesn’t come naturally to lawmakers, however, and seems even less likely in the current chaotic atmosphere.

Michael Shear, the president of Pockets, an organization that seeks to create distributed work, telemedicine and education hubs, also points to the heavily deregulated environment of the past 20-something years. His view is that many important issues that have to be dealt with when multiple billions of dollars are on the table have in essence been off-loaded by the government.

“Since divestiture in 1984, public policy and public policy awareness and expertise have disappeared,” Shear says. “As a consequence, there is an absence of the ability to determine what’s in the public good on broadband, and how to create the best approaches to building that kind of infrastructure.”

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