An Apt Assessment of Broadband


Conveniently, the Alliance for Public Technology's annual Broadband Forum took place in Washington on the day after the notorious and confusing Federal Communciations Commission rulings on telco broadband services.

The day's keynote speaker — Bruce Mehlman, the assistant secretary of commerce for technology policy and a key architect of the Bush administration's broadband agenda (such as it is) — even made note of the muddy understanding of the decisions. Press accounts of the FCC vote in major daily newspapers that morning all interpreted the rulings differently, he noted.

Speaker Kyle Dixon, special counsel on broadband policy to FCC Chairman Michael Powell, commended the "aggressive stance the Commission took" (such as it is) in self-congratulatory hauteur. Dixon also enunciated the FCC's agenda for cable modem and wireless broadband reviews.

Different Strokes

But in response to my "short and simple" question about creating a level playing field for various broadband platforms, Dixon admitted: "There's not a whole lot we can do at the agency level. These platforms will be regulated differently."

Another panelist, Bob Atkinson, research director for policy at Columbia University's Institute for Tele-Information, insisted the FCC could not take power away from state governments when it comes to broadband regulation.

Atkinson also insisted that "states are great laboratories" for testing fiber optics and other services, although he acknowledged that he "would have like to see the FCC act more on the right to access."

In that fuzzy (albeit not particularly warm) atmosphere, APT's seminar, dreamily entitled "Delivering the Promise: Strategies for Universal Broadband Deployment," showcased residential and enterprise broadband services, especially those in education and community services — what the cable industry thinks of as "public access."

APT's annual Broadband Forum is never an overtly cable-bashing event, but many of the presentations from community-based broadband users point out that their reliance on telco broadband services is in large part a result of cable TV disinterest or downright rejection. Verizon Communications Inc., SBC Communications Inc. and other telephone companies and suppliers who substantially underwrite the APT program use the projects (some of which also benefit from telco support) to demonstrate the value of broadband in ventures encompassing employee training, prison telemedicine, school sports transmissions and services for the handicapped.

Touting the Telcos

Although never overtly stated, the sub rosa message to regulators and legislators (who were well represented by staff members at the APT Forum) is the value of telco's broadband presence in the broadband sector.

Peter Miller, director of the CTC VISTA Project at the University of Massachusetts (Boston), offered a prime example of this drift toward telco broadband. Miller described the development and launch of the Commonwealth Broadband Collaborative (, which last month debuted "First Tuesday," a monthly series of Webcasts about technology.

The show offers multilingual, multicultural content about advanced telecom technology developments in eastern Massachusetts. It is part of the Federal Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) "domestic Peace Corps" initiative, and Miller proudly extolled that the show is produced for about $500 per episode, and available on-demand through DSL and institutional networks.

When pressed, Miller acknowledged that his organization originally negotiated with the region's AT&T Broadband cable systems (now owned by Comcast Corp.) to help produce and carry the shows and to support the program in other ways. After being bounced around and out, CBC took its agenda elsewhere, using UMass's intercampus network, which links its Boston and Lowell locations.

We didn't have any leverage," Miller told me. He said Comcast systems in Somerville and Malden are now carrying the "First Tuesday" half-hour show in their community access channel rotation.

Several other local cable systems plan to run the shows, Miller also acknowledged.

APT describes CBC's vision as "an integrated approach involving simultaneous development of a dynamic broadband infrastructure, an increase in the amount of relevant broadband content that engages all segments of the community, and provision of access, education, training and support in advanced technologies and applications."

It almost sounds like a cable franchise promise.

Miller said he still hopes for multimodal operation, encompassing more cable participation, as well as telephone-based content creation and delivery.

Collective message

APT and its telco backers are entitled to their self-congratulatory forum. It typically offers fascinating examples of grassroots broadband projects (albeit often nurtured with Bell fertilizer).

Inevitably, cable and other broadband providers will strike back with their own slate of achievements. The dueling developments may event sink through to policymakers as collective accomplishments.

Ideally, the ventures contribute to the belief that consumers receive innovative broadband service (such as it is).

Contributing curmudgeon Gary Arlen opines regularly for Broadband Week.