July 2, 2009 11:24 PM

The FCC's Broadband Plan: Is the Grass Greener in a "Green Field" or a "Brown Field"?

At today's open meeting, the FCC gave an update on its process for developing a National Broadband Plan.  The Commission's explanation of the development of a National Broadband Plan, and the benefits that such a plan promises, upon implementation, was truly inspirational. . . and a very befitting way to kick off the Fourth of July weekend.  The only thing that could have made the presentation more inspiring would have been the addition of Lee Greenwood's, "Proud To Be An American" as a background track. 

All kidding aside, though, the prospect of a National Broadband Plan is an exciting proposition, and has, naturally enough, led to a lot of excited and ambitious "castles in the air" type conjecture (though not in the pejorative sense of the expression).   Seriously, I'm impressed by the way Chairman Genachowski is going about developing a broadband plan.  He couldn't do better with his choice of a person to shepherd the plan along--Blair Levin.  I wasn't able to find Blair's bio on the Commission web site, but, if you're reading this, I shouldn't have to.  Blair is one of those few people that, if you've been around the telecom policy world for any time at all, even if you don't know him, you know he knows what's going on--and probably understands the implications a lot better than you!  At least this is the case when the "you" is me, anyway. 

The other thing Chairman Genachowski--with less than a week on the job--got right was the "broadband.gov" web site to allow a lot of transparency into the development of the broadband plan, and to allow for maximum inclusion of ideas by all concerned parties.  Finally, on the web site, I'd like to draw the reader's attention to the excellent presentation by Blair Levin on the process that has already been developed to begin the iterative process of creating a National Broadband Plan. So, I am kind've encouraged that the Commission is not looking at the broadband plan as a totally "green field" project that can be undertaken without regard to first fixing existing problems.  Still, this being Washington, nobody gets a free ride--except for, like, on their birthday, or political appointment day, or some other special occasion.

As I mentioned, the good part of what we've seen so far on the National Broadband Plan from the Commission is the recognition that it is, to some degree, a "brown field" project--and that broadband deployment and broadband adoption incentives are not ends in themselves, but interim steps that are prerequisites to delivering the benefits of broadband to the public.  The part of me that remains skeptical, though, is the FCC's reticence to acknowledge that there are further steps to broadband utopia than just making broadband ubiquitous and spreading the gospel of its benefits.  But, with the rigor of the process the Commission has outlined, there is good reason to believe the FCC will understand that there are far bigger obstacles on the road to broadband utopia, than just the distance between where we are now and the ultimate destination. 

In other words, the Commission must be careful to ensure that the "wants" (or public benefits) of a National Broadband Plan are not adopted without sufficient consideration of the "needs" (or limitations) of the plan, which are best thought of as the constraints within which, the National Broadband Plan must be designed.  It would be a mistake for the Commission to put policy "porn" (i.e., visions of technology fantasies) ahead of policy pragmatics; to do so would be tantamount to placing the cart before the horse. 

Said differently, the Commission must not treat the design and development of a National Broadband Plan as if it the plan would be implemented as a "green field" project, when--in fact--Congress has handed the Commission a "brown field" on which to develop its National Broadband Plan.  So, instead of being able to sort and sift through the best public comments, and build a policy on virgin soil, the FCC has been handed the equivalent of an abandoned industrial complex that is an unsafe eyesore, has squatters, rodents, rusted lead pipes, and wiring so faulty as to be a fire hazard to other nearby buildings.  To continue the analogy, before the FCC can begin construction on a new facility, it must safely evacuate those living in the unsafe structure, then safely prepare the existing structure for demolition, and, finally, safely level the existing structure.

So what are the "brown field" hazards with which the FCC must contend, prior to getting to the fun, cool part of actually developing a broadband plan?  Well, the hazards are no secret and they have been identified by plenty of public commenters that don't typically agree.  At least one firm, or trade association, in every sector that will contribute to the realization, and implementation, of the ultimate National Broadband Plan (large integrated carriers, independent LECs, wireless providers, cable companies, competitive carriers, and independent Internet backbone providers) has identified: 1) universal service reform, and/or 2) intercarrier compensation reform as the biggest problems that must be solved as part of a comprehensive National Broadband Plan. 

These are pre-existing problems that have been around for a long time, have only become larger, and are considered regulatory risk factors by any potential provider or purchaser of broadband service.  It is a matter of simple economics that increased costs (through regulatory risk premiums) on broadband consumers and broadband providers will lead to broadband deployment and penetration levels that are less than optimal. 

Unless, or until, the FCC "curbs its enthusiasm" for the "next big thing", rolls up its sleeves, and does the hard work of solving the gritty "brown field" problems that have, no doubt, already hindered efficient broadband investment and penetration, the FCC cannot pass "go" on the Congressional mandate to develop a national broadband plan in the next 6 months.  As the saying goes, "recognition is the first step."  If the Commission can recognize that developing a National Broadband Plan is, fundamentally, a "brown field" problem,(and take steps to solve "brown field" development issues) the FCC will have its best chance to promote broadband deployment and increase broadband penetration--by fixing old problems first.  On the other hand, though, if the Commission treats the development of a National Broadband Plan as a policy "green field", the FCC risks creating a broadband "sinkhole" in which the old, rotting policies subsume what would otherwise be good ideas that were layered on a faulty foundation. 

Failing to approach the development of a National Broadband Plan from a "brown field" perspective would waste a rare opportunity to address the largest, most intractable,  and politically perilous policy issues that have been plaguing all broadband (and potential broadband) providers for years.  Worse, still, deliberately choosing to not address these issues as part of a broadband plan would compound that wasted opportunity, and would be an act of profound existential arrogance.  Nonetheless, from what I've seen, so far, I'm not betting against Chairman Genachowski and his team--at least, not yet;-)

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