Sunday, December 28, 2008

Broadband Stimulus Plan: How About Some Data First?


by: Ryan Singel, Wired

(Photo: Getty Images)

During the Great Depression, the government tried to revive the economy with the New Deal's public work projects, and ended up paying people to dig unneeded ditches.

In today's deep recession, digital age advocates are trying to persuade President-elect Barack Obama to put billions into a nationwide broadband build-out as part of his planned economic stimulus package.

Given that the internet has grown into an indispensable tool for the economy, for people's personal lives and for the nation's political discourse, spending billions to keep it stable and expand its reach is simply common sense.

But how do we make sure that the billions aren't spent creating the 21st century equivalent of ditches to nowhere?

The question of how to spend that money most effectively is largely unanswerable, since almost no one knows anything about the internet's infrastructure and those that do know aren't sharing that information with policymakers or regulators.

In a radio address earlier this month, Obama already signaled that the stimulus package will earmark billions to spur broadband deployment in order to keep the U.S. from sinking even lower than 15th on the list of well-wired countries.

There are many urging that the $800 billion or so economic stimulus plan include money for broader broadband. Higher education IT consortium EDUCAUSE suggests $100 billion (.pdf) be spent on fat fiber optic links to homes, while FreePress, a net neutrality advocacy group, has a $44 billion plan. For its part, the FCC has a pending proposal to open a swath of the airwaves dedicated to free, but filtered, wireless internet.

But the problem is that no one knows the best way to make the internet more resilient, accessible and secure, since there's no just no public data. The ISP and backbone internet providers don't tell anyone anything.

For instance, the government doesn't know how many people actually have broadband or what they pay for it.

In short, how can anyone decide what's the best way to build a bigger information super-highway when the toll operators won't say anything about the current use of the road?

Bruce Kushnick, a longtime advocate for more broadband and a founder of TeleTruth, blames the FCC.

"The FCC has essentially created a fictional story about broadband's growth and deployment," Kushnick said. "Had the FCC done the actual work to examine the history of broadband and then questioned why America was not getting properly upgraded, we wouldn't be 15th in the world in broadband."

In September, the FCC found that its data collection on internet broadband was incomplete and thus ruled that AT&T, Qwest and Verizon could stop filing some reports - because the requirements did not extend to cable companies, too.

FCC Commissioner Johnathan Adelstein dissented in part, writing:

Just as an airplane pilot would not land a plane with eyes closed and instruments off, the Commission must ensure that its decision-making is guided by sufficient data. Particularly as telecommunications markets move to a less regulated model, the FCC can also play an important role by providing information directly to consumers that will empower them to choose among competitive carriers.

With so many benefits from the Commission’s efforts to collect and share market information, we should be skeptical about proposals to effectively jettison a host of reporting requirements that may help the Commission perform its consumer protection, broadband, competition and public safety functions.

Should Congress attach net neutrality rules to any federal funds?

Should governments subsidize companies like AT&T even more? Compel cities to lay down and rent out fiber to the home?

How much pipe is already laid? Who owns the pipe now, and who should own the pipe in the future?

Should broadband companies be regulated like utilities or be subject to common carrier rules like airlines are? How much competition is there already?

What happened to all the promises that the nation's phone companies made about cheap DSL? What's been the effect of freeing the phone companies from having to lease their lines at wholesale prices, besides the closure of thousands of small ISPs? Where's the congestion? What pipes are not used and why not?

There's simply a lack of information. The tubes are private. The connections between them are ever shifting and their mere existence is covered by non-disclosure agreements.

KC Claffy, the principal investigator for Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis or CAIDA, recently gave a presentation to a group pulled together by the Department of Homeland Security's science and technology group, comparing the lack of transparency about how the internet works to that lack of information which brought down the international banking industry.

Claffy writes:

The FCC is not exempt from the facts either - the agency should be pursuing empirically grounded validation of the claimed efficiency of its own policies, even if it requires trading temporary spectrum unlicensing as an experiment to gather realistic baseline data on wireless network behavior to policymakers. The academic community could even help design such a network, geared toward public safety objectives and supporting scientific research balanced carefully against individual privacy.

It is thus in interest of taxpayers for governments to promote and sometimes directly fund universal deployment of network infrastructure. More generally, government needs to prevent monopoly control over essential resources, mandate collection of traffic reports from ISPs to validate their claims, be a better role model for operational security and coordinate the development of a road map for Internet security similar to that of the energy sector.

To be fair, the FCC did finally move in March to require more detailed reporting from ISPs and to update its definition of broadband so that only connections of 768Kbps or faster count (the low end of most DSL offerings). For years, the FCC classified any connection of 200Kbps or higher as broadband, allowing the agency to make inflated claims about the number of people with quality connections to the net.

Under the new rules, a telecom also can no longer say that a ZIP code is wired for the millennium so long as one house in the area subscribes to a service at 200Kbps.

Billions for a better internet, sure - but in absence of some real data, some real experiments, and some real verifiable science, that money is likely to be wasted or simply handed off to big telecom companies that have already proven they aren't in any hurry to wire us up to future.


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