Hurry Up and Wait in Politics, Broadband


What if the broadband rollout works like the presidential election? After prolonged research and forecasting, the outcome of the race between cable and digital-subscriber line is too close to call.

Despite all the hype and hyperbole, only about half the prospective audience actually decides to buy into the process.

Meanwhile, renegade purveyors-such as wireless and satellite networks-snare enough customers to prevent the "rightful" wired providers from proclaiming victory.

The analogy isn't that far-fetched. Broadband's early customers certainly complained about the first stage of the process-installation-and kvetched even more about the its reliability.

And as for coattails, just as the presidential candidates didn't do much to carry their partisans into local and statewide office, neither has broadband opened the doors for made-for-broadband content, at least in these early days.

Meanwhile the arms merchants of the high-speed era (hardware and software suppliers) are ensuring they're on the winning side-akin to the soft money contributors in the political arena. Just as political-action committees cover their bets by doling out cash to both campaigns, equipment makers can easily configure their hardware to work with whoever wins.

You'd hardly expect anything less from Cisco Systems Inc., Nortel Networks, Lucent Technologies, Philips Consumer Electronics Co., Pace Micro Technology plc or the other vendors seeking to assure themselves a place in the next administration-oops, I mean broadband industry.

Let's not forget that conventions play a role in all of these campaigns. The summer political pep rallies in Philadelphia and Los Angeles may have actually had more verve than cable's National and Western shows this year, and the Democrats certainly brought a livelier crowd of protesters to the Staples Center perimeter than we'll see there next week. (The telco industry's SuperComm or ComNet shows are barely worth mentioning in this part of the comparison.)

Even some of the characters involved in broadband's birth and the presidential election saga are the same. Al Gore, of course, became the nemesis of cable long ago. Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, has vowed to investigate broadcast and cable networks' election-night coverage. Various lawyers and political functionaries are popping up in both scenarios.

And let's not forget all those judges who are getting involved in resolving the legal battles.

To keep our geographical point of reference intact, in the midst of the vote tabulation recount last week, AT&T Broadband confirmed that it will launch AT&T@Home in Florida today, "armed with a ruling in their favor from the federal court."

For the sake of differentiation, the @Home case involved Broward County, one jurisdiction south of the epicenter of the voting controversy.

Most significant to this comparison, of course, is the centerpiece of both the broadband and election crises: technology. What works better? For that matter, what works at all?

The voting results are not about ballot "chads" any more than high-speed access depends on modem retailing. These are factors to be dealt with as part of the larger challenge: How is this thing supposed to turn out?

Since no solution will make everyone happy, the broadband battle at least is more realistic. It's not winner-take-all. Some broadband participants may actually be satisfied even if they are not dominant.

As high-speed hopefuls careen around their service areas-almost as aggressively as the candidates jetted into swing states-technocratic opportunism is rampant. DSL has a chance in some dense jurisdictions, but only if not obstructed by switched barriers along the first 17,000 feet. Cable modems are a better bet in many regions, except if high user turnout slows them down during primetime.

And, as the post-voting day fiasco confirmed, we can always turn to the courts. In light of last week's suits and countersuits, the open-access battles of last year were an appropriate prelude to the inauguration of high-speed service in many communities. This isn't going to end soon-even though a winner will be declared.

The endless night of Nov. 7 (including Nov. 8, 9, 10 and counting) offers a warning about declaring victory too soon. Indeed, since broadband service has already turned into a game of high-tech one-upsmanship, there is every reason to expect cable, DSL, wireless and soon the satellite forces to continue proclaiming victory.

Too bad they can't get former secretaries of state to plead their cases, however undiplomatically.

If there is a lesson to be learned from the election imbroglio, it is that the experts can't be trusted-or, more specifically, they should only be trusted if they tell us what we want to believe. The tracking polls prior to Election Day managed expectations toward a very close presidential race. For some reason, we were shocked when it actually turned out that way.

Yet the broadband industry is stunned when forecasters predict that no provider will dominate the business-and that half the prospective users will ignore the service altogether.

Too bad there's no such thing as an "Electronical College" to blame for the high-speed snafus that lie ahead.

I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen, having spent time in Chicago, understands how to punch in early and often.