Presidential Candidate’s Broadband Platforms

White HouseThe political season is upon us and I noticed that Hillary Clinton issued an infrastructure plan that includes making significant investments in broadband. I guess like is true for most industries, people like me that try to track a given industry are always interested in what potential presidents might have in store for us. Here are the key points of her broadband platform:

  • “By 2020, 100% of households in America will have the option of affordable broadband that delivers speeds sufficient to meet families’ need.”
  • Create a $25 billion Infrastructure Bank that will offer grants to communities for broadband and for other purposes to jumpstart community-initiated broadband projects.
  • Reduce regulatory barriers to the private provision of broadband.
  • Promote policies like ‘dig once’ that will provide more broadband infrastructure.
  • Develop public-private partnerships for broadband.
  • Connect more anchor institutions to high-speed Internet.
  • Deploy 5G wireless and next generation wireless systems.
  • Reallocate and repurpose spectrum for broadband.
  • Foster a civic Internet of Things to foster broadband deployment.

That’s quite a wish list and it’s the most detailed list of broadband goals that I recall ever seeing from a candidate before. Both Barack Obama and George W. Bush had platforms that included expanding access to broadband, but they were far less specific than this. Here are my reactions to the platform:

  • The goal of getting broadband to everybody by 2020 is a silly political goal. If the programs were already in place today to somehow pay for this it would still take a lot longer than that to deploy adequate broadband to everybody. And this raises the issue of what ‘affordable broadband that delivers speeds that meets families’ needs’ means. I would think at the federal level that they believe that is what CAF II is doing, although most of us in the industry understand this to be a boondoggle that will deliver speeds that will be obsolete before they are installed. And even after CAF II is built there will be a lot of places in rural America (and urban America) that won’t meet this goal.
  • Putting federal dollars into programs that can seed broadband expansion is something that we know can work. Just look at the DEED grants in Minnesota to see how the $65 million in grants there since the start of the program have seeded numerous rural broadband projects. I see many broadband projects that can’t find funding, and many of those projects could get a great jump-start with some seed money from a federal source. One always has to worry with federal funding that taking the money isn’t too expensive – for example, a huge amount of money was wasted by the BTOP rule that all projects had to pay urban labor rates for construction. And since this infrastructure bank will be doing more than just broadband, we’d have to see how much money would actually be available. But any federal money is going to help.
  • It would be interesting to see how regulations could be improved for broadband. The FCC is now in the process of regulating broadband for the first time, but the regulations that make it hard to build fiber are mostly at the state and local level.
  • I’ve commented in the past how most ‘dig once’ plans are often a waste of time. Conduit that is built without the necessary handholes and other access points is nearly worthless for serving neighborhoods with fiber.
  • I sit here and wonder what the federal government could do to promote public-private partnerships and I come up empty. I’m a big fan of PPPs, but I also know the challenges of putting together a good partnership and it doesn’t seem like the sort of things that federal rules could make easier or better.
  • I worry about including 5G as a broadband plan. I guess anybody who reads my blog knows I think fiber is always going to be the ultimate technology. Even if we migrate to wireless drops there will need to be fiber deep in neighborhoods and close to homes.

Overall this is not a bad list. It’s certainly more ambitious than anything we’ve seen before. The most promising thing on the list are the grants to promote broadband. Those might do more good than the rest of the list to get a lot more fiber projects under shovel.

Donald Trump has not put out any specific goals for broadband. But he said in a few speeches that he’s in favor of putting as much as a trillion dollars into infrastructure. If more details become available I will try to compare both plans.

Of course, as history has shown us, having something in a presidential platform is no guarantee that it will ever come to pass – but it is a set of goals. But first, the candidate has to get elected and after that there are a lot of politics that include Congress and the FCC that are necessary before most of these goals can ever become realized.

Big Government and Broadband

Capitol_domeOne of the platforms of Hillary Clinton’s campaign is to create a 5-year $275 billion infrastructure plan that would, among other things, foster faster broadband for rural America. The plan would also pay for crumbling roads and bridges and other infrastructure. I’ve seen estimates that as a country we have a several trillion dollar infrastructure deficit, and so this plan would be the proverbial drop in the bucket towards bringing our infrastructure back to where it needs to be. But it’s a start and is better than doing nothing.

This plan leads me to speculate on the role that big government might be able to play in solving our broadband needs. What might the US government do with billions of dollars aimed at improving broadband?

We’ve seen two previous big federal broadband programs and the results have not been very good. First was the billions that were part of the broadband stimulus package. This money was used mostly to create middle mile fiber – that is fiber that stretches between communities. Some of that fiber has been used to get better broadband to the last mile, but the vast majority of that investment has not benefitted a whole lot of people other than the cellular companies who use that fiber to get cheaper access to cell towers.

The stimulus money also put a lot of emphasis on getting fiber to ‘anchor institutions’ which it defined as schools, libraries, city halls, and other government institutions. So we ended up with rural fiber networks that serve only a handful of these anchor institutions, but not to the neighborhoods surrounding these locations. As I’ve written many times, bringing fiber only to anchor institutions is actually a disincentive to get fiber everywhere because it removes these large bandwidth customers from being potential customers of locally built fiber networks.

To give the federal government a little credit, the stimulus money popped onto the scene with no notice and there was no plan in place or even people in place to review the various grant proposals. There were some last mile networks financed from the stimulus money and I’m sure those communities are thrilled to have been the lucky few that benefitted from the many billions in spending.

More recently we have seen the FCC throw billions of dollars at the large telcos with the CAF II funding. They have given Frontier, AT&T, and CenturyLink billions of dollars to improve rural DSL broadband to 10 Mbps. And gave them six years to get it done. This is such a bad idea on so many levels that you’ll have to go and read my other rants on this. But this is mostly the equivalent of pouring money onto the ground and it going to bring no real broadband to anybody. This is a classic case of a government boondoggle that spends a lot of money and accomplishes almost nothing useful.

So what might the feds do if they were to give out more billions? One thing they will probably do is to overspend on broadband like was done with the stimulus money. Those grants included rules that inflated the cost of building fiber. The companies taking the money had to do expensive environmental and historical studies, something that makes no sense for fiber that is placed into pre-existing road rights-of-ways. And they required the contractors building the networks to use prevailing wages, which mostly meant paying large city wages for projects that could have normally been done in rural areas for a lot less. Altogether these extra requirements probably added 15% – 20% to the cost of the projects.

What is scary is that in order to shovel the money out the door quickly the federal government might either give the money to the incumbents as corporate welfare or else end up backing projects like more middle mile that largely build fiber to nowhere.

The most cost effective way to use federal money would be to give it to local groups in some sort of matching arrangement. This would stretch the federal money the farthest and would also enable communities to find the best local broadband solution. Some communities might tackle this directly using bond money for the match, while many others would seek out public/private partnerships with local carriers. And the small telcos and coops around the country could use this money to extend their fiber networks – many of them have already showed us how to bring fiber to remote places.

I have no idea if there will even be another big pile of federal money aimed at broadband – it’s a long way from a campaign platform to reality. But if this does happen I hope that this time they have a better plan that would use the money to build last mile fiber to rural communities – the only permanent solution to closing the rural broadband gap. I hope they take the time to listen to the industry and this time that they do it right – or at least better.