Last week I had the opportunity to join a panel discussion at the Broadband Communities program and shared my perspective on partnerships and how they might move the ball forward on broadband deployment in hard to serve rural markets. Whether it is NTCA member rural broadband providers partnering with one another, with their state fiber networks, with local electric coops or communities – part of the equation is what it will take for some of our unserved and underserved communities to actually receive connectivity.
At the same conference, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society released their latest report on the status of broadband and what building blocks are needed for a National Broadband Agenda (again!). Jon Sallet, former FCC top official under Chairman Wheeler wrote the report and we had a few opportunities to chat with Jon during his exploration. Jon even sent pictures from his office (former farm shed) on the Eastern Shore of Maryland where he is lacking broadband access and I believe depends on sporadic connectivity from a local WISP and I know he felt empathy about what it takes to serve rural America. However, that was why I found some of the released report to be so disturbing including the following passage:
“There is a tendency to call the construction of new, competitive networks in a locality with an existing network “overbuilding” – as if it were an unnecessary things, a useless piece of engineering. But what some call “overbuilding” should be called by a more familiar term: “Competition”. “Overbuilding” is an engineering concept that helps consumers because it shifts the focus from counting broadband networks to counting the dollars that consumers save when they have competitive choices. The difference is fundamental – overbuilding asks whether the dollars spent to build another network are necessary for the delivery of a communications service; economics asks whether spending those dollars will lead to competition that allows consumers to spend less and get more. He also cites electric cooperatives as “mavericks” and well positioned to offer this competitive service. In the spirit of being mindful of what is put on the backs of rural consumers, there should then be transparency on how electric cooperatives are funding broadband builds to ensure that their electric rate payers are not paying for two networks in an essentially monopoly market in cases where an electric cooperative is overbuilding a telecommunications cooperative. The consumer simply does not win in that scenario and neither do any of the rural utilities.
There are often lofty platitudes of what competition in delivery can bring but simply put, some markets are not build to support multiple providers efficiently. If that were not the case, there would be more broadband deployed in high cost areas and there would be no need for federal support programs. Neither is true today.
Looking on the plus side of the report, Sallet does acknowledge that if everyone has future-proof networks, than maybe overbuilding restrictions would be ok and that priority needs to be given to encourage construction of these higher-speed and capacity networks. He also notes that an integrated agenda that addresses all facets of the broadband “problem” would be a key next step – deployment, competition, affordability and adoption, and the role of community anchor institutions.
While I take issue with some of the topics raised in the report and while I don’t believe that there is one single magic policy bullet – I do think that it is important to get key conversations started and the Benton Institute has certainly done that with a commonly shared goal of getting Americans connected.