News

A Broadband Strategy That’s Past Its Time

6/07/2010 7:02 AM Eastern

Drive north on I-5 in
California — way north, past
Sacramento, past Redding.
When you get all the way to
Yreka, turn left and go another
25 miles into the Trinity Wilderness.
You will go by the little
town of Fort Jones and through
the alfalfa fields to the foot of
the Trinity Alps. You’ll come to
a gravel road at the end of which
is a nice cabin, where my late
father-in-law set up a computer.
That computer is connected
to high-speed Internet service
provided by his phone company.
Yep, that’s right, broadband
in the middle of nowhere.

Today, better than 96% of
California homes have access
to some form of broadband. Almost
80% of Californians have a
computer in the home and 63%
of those have a broadband connection
via cable, telco or other
provider. Listening to your government,
though, you’d get the
impression that most Americans
couldn’t find broadband
with a map and a flashlight.

Rest assured that, in spite
of the fact 68% of you actually
have a choice between broadband
providers, your government
is working night and day
to see that you get … broadband.
There are strategic plans;
there’s field research, blogs and
meetings. In spite of almost
ubiquitous coverage, state government
is still today working
to get to 100% broadband availability.
Landline phones have
been around for more than 100
years now, and that service is
only available to 95.4% of Californians.
We’ve got this backwards.
We should stop chasing 100%
broadband coverage and just get
broadband to those we can.

Plus, we’re not exploring options
that could make a big difference
to the 96% that have access
today. One is to open up existing
cable and telco networks to third
parties. Europe and other parts
of the world have open network
access, which spurs innovation
and competition and results in
faster speeds and lower prices.
This is where government could
be useful, but so far is not.

Getting broadband to that last
4% will be enormously expensive.
A recent National Public Radio
report stated that it would likely
be cheaper to buy the homes
of the unserved and move them
to broadband. Undeterred, the
California Public Utilities Commission
created the California
Advanced Services Fund (CASF).
This $100 million program comes
out of the pockets of ratepayers
and is available to qualified
telcos and cable operators. The
fund has not worked as intended.
Two years after its creation,
only about 12% of the money had
been accessed. Restrictions and
requirements aside, no provider
wants to build plant or serve
a customer more than 10 miles
from the nearest headend or central
office, especially with gas at
$3 a gallon.

One use of public funds that
could make a difference would
be allowing residential and
commercial property owners to
access CASF dollars for line extensions
and increased capacity.
There are many potential customers
that want broadband,
but do not want to spend $2,000-
plus for a line extension. Allowing
these folks to access their
own CASF dollars would get
them broadband and actually
spur the local economy by putting
local contractors to work.
Solving small-scale problems
like this is often what government
does best.

The Obama administration is
also busy. Under the American
Recovery Act, it created a $7.2
billion broadband fund. There
were more than 200 California
applications. Some expected
California’s share of these stimulus
dollars to be as much as $1
billion dollars. So far, its take
has been far, far less. Why? 96%
broadband availability.

The U.S. Agriculture Department
reported that in 2009, one
in five kids in this country went
hungry at one point or another
(the highest recorded figure
since the government has been
keeping track). Next to that, the
California PUC’s CASF fund
would seem, at the very least,
poorly timed. Given serious
problems, why are so many in
government today working on
broadband? To be fair, there
are people doing really good
work, especially in the nonprofit
sector. For instance, for quite
sometime and without asking
for stimulus dollars, the Puente
Learning Center in Los Angeles
has helped kids and low-income
folks without computers to become
digitally literate.

The Federal Communications
Commission recently rolled out
its National Broadband Plan and
there is considerable talk about
reclassifying broadband as a Title
II service. Government always
moves more slowly than
business, but broadband has
been widely available for almost a
decade now. It’s a little late for comprehensive
plans, rule-makings
and legislation that defines and
regulates it. This horse is well out
of the barn.


Joe Camicia is the former adviser
for policy and planning at
the California Public Utilities
Commission and is on the campaign
staff of Rep. Jim Costa
(D-Calif.).
September