The ConnectKentucky Model — A Limited Step In the Right Direction

Many interested parties have asked me to comment on the emerging controversy surrounding ConnectKentucky/Connected Nation. The controversy involves the extent to which CK/CN is fulfilling its promises. But in my opinion, we should be focusing on an even more important question: What role should “the CK model” play in America’s broadband policy?

According to most of America’s major incumbent communications providers, the United States does not need, and should not develop, a national broadband strategy that goes beyond ensuring that all Americans have access to a minimum level of broadband. To them, the CK model is the appropriate vehicle for achieving that limited goal.

The CK model would be a valuable step in the right direction if its flaws were duly corrected. At best, however, the CK model cannot alone meet America’s current and future broadband needs. For that, nothing short of a bold national broadband strategy will suffice.

Over the last year, I have repeatedly praised CK/CN for their broadband mapping, consumer education, and demand aggregation activities. While some of their claims seemed exaggerated to me, I have always given them the benefit of the doubt. At the same time, I often expressed concerns about CK/CN’s limited, incumbent-centric vision of America’s broadband needs and about its strong bias against public broadband initiatives.

In his lengthy article, Art Brodsky called several of CK’s claims into question. Brian Meffert responded on behalf of CK/CN.

I hope that Mr. Meffert will provide a more detailed response, that Mr. Brodsky will reply, and that the unnamed sources to which both refer will step forward and enlighten us about what really happened in Kentucky. In a matter of this importance, we need to know the facts, and we should not pre-judge them in either direction.

Wherever the truth may lie, however, my main concerns about CK/CN will remain. In 2002, the US Department of Commerce issued a report entitled “Understanding Broadband Demand” in which it observed that “It is important to note here that the current generation of broadband technologies (cable and DSL) may prove woefully insufficient to carry many of the advanced applications driving future demand. Today’s broadband will be tomorrow’s traffic jam, and the need for speed will persist as new applications and services gobble up existing bandwidth.”

Now, six years later, we can clearly see how prescient the Department of Commerce was. In Asia and Europe, the world’s leading nations are pushing rapidly toward speeds of 100 Mbps to 10 Gbps. Such speeds will completely tip the balance of innovation and competitiveness in their favor. In contrast, CK/CN defines “broadband” as 256 kbps, and it does not encourage communities to aspire to more than single-digit DSL or cable modem speeds. These speeds will not support bandwidth-rich applications or the high-technology jobs that the leading nations will be developing.

To remain a leader in the emerging global economy, the United States needs a much bigger vision. We need to give all Americans, including those in the rural areas that CK/CN would serve, candid and unbiased information about the stakes involved and about the full range of options available to their communities. Moreover, we cannot afford to exclude any potentially viable initiative, public or private, that can help the United States fulfill its vision.

To be sure, we need reliable maps of broadband availability, as well as speed, quality, and price. No one disputes this and many tools are now emerging to provide such data. We also need better consumer education, including accurate data about offerings of incumbent and competitive providers. At the very least, CK/CN deserve credit for highlighting and contributing to addressing these needs. But we can’t stop there.

America needs a national broadband strategy that is worthy of this great nation. This can happen only if all major stakeholders, including the incumbents, candidly acknowledge that America faces a tremendous challenge, that time is short, and that the public and private sectors must work together in a spirit of mutual respect to meet this great chal lenge. We cannot allow the CK/CN controversy to bog us down or divert us from developing such a strategy.–Jim Baller

Jim Baller is a Senior Principal of the Baller Herbst Law Group, a national law firm based in Washington, DC, and Minneapolis, MN. The Firm specializes in representing local governments and public power utilities in matters involving telecommunications, cable television, high-speed data communications, the Internet, wireless communications, right-of-way management, pole and conduit attachments, barriers to the public-sector entry into communications, bankruptcy, and antitrust.

Comments

  1. As usual, Jim Baller does a good job of putting these complex issues in context. After reading this piece, I have to scratch my head and ask those who would advocate the minimalist approach to policy and planning,

    “Where else in our public lives do we settle for such an ad hoc approach?”
    “Why is it important (or even appropriate) to set the bar so low in defining broadband?”
    “Why should we limit our planning to the bare minimum?” and finally,
    “What about the next steps after mapping, like joint planning among multiple entities and joint procurement?”

    It’s times like these that I think we must be the most dysfunctional nation on the planet, but then, I know we’re functional or even leading in many areas – we get so much right as a nation, so how is it that we can seem so backward when it comes to broadband?

    I’d argue that it starts with Attitude. As long as we view communication as the strict priority of the private sector, and even more, of the incumbent private sector, then it follows that it’s out of scope to have either the federal government or public citizens take a more assertive role at the policy table.

    We need to snap out of our complacency when it comes to broadband. Our current approach is not serving us well as a nation.

    We need to look beyond the conventional when it comes to broadband, beyond DSL, Cable, and Cellular. There are alternatives to the reigning status quo approaches that are showing more ingenuity and hold significant potential (Wi Fi Mesh, WiMAX, BPL, FTTH, for a start), and they’re having success on a small scale while swimming upstream against the current.

    In no way does adding these alternatives to the discussion lessen the potential impact of the conventional side. There’s plenty of room for Old and New.

    There is Win/Win potential in taking a comprehensive look at our broadband future and crafting a policy that preserves the best of the current system and adds to that the best of the new innovative approaches. But we’ll not get to that discussion if we have stay with our closed attitudes about broadband.

    Progress in this area has to start with a “large, open table” discussion among all interested parties. We’re late to the game in not having had this discussion already. The prospect of a messy, complicated, unpredictable, or even transformative outcome is no reason not to get the conversation started now.

    We owe it to ourselves and our children to get our collective act together when it comes to national broadband policy.

  2. Thanks to both Jim and John (and many others in other discussions) for bringing such passion to this important issue. It certainly begs the question: What do our Presidential candidates think about America’s poor — and degrading — position of global competitiveness when it comes to broadband?

    I know it’s easy to be cynical and scoff at the idea of politicians staking out policy positions that won’t capture talk-radio’s interest or fit neatly into an attack ad. But regardless of what your position may be on issues such as Net Neutrality, municipalities’ roles when it comes to wireless networks and other broadband-related policies, we all need to ask our elected leaders and candidates about these issues. If we don’t, then we deserve what we get — or, as the case may be, don’t get.