The National Broadband Plan, while it has many admirable elements, suffers from two major flaws that spell trouble for your local broadband hopes and dreams. A recent national survey of economic development professionals highlights the flaws and points to avenues to overcome the challenge.   

Having speed goals defining the success of our broadband efforts in the United States is the first flaw. For those in rural areas, the 10-year goal is 4 Mbps download speed, 1 Mbps upload speed. For the rest of the country, the benchmark is 100 Mbps for 100 million (mostly urban/suburban) households by 2020. The plan’s second flaw is the overzealous assumption that incumbent telecom companies are our primary source of broadband redemption.

Establishing speed as the main goal is problematic because need should drive technology choices (including access speeds), not the other way around. Many communities have huge needs — to improve and enhance economic development, health-care delivery, education and so forth — that broadband can address. Meeting these needs requires various technologies that are constantly evolving and changing, like shifting sand. Shifting sand isn’t a good foundation for a critical national initiative.

Furthermore, the goals are too low and the timeline for achieving them is too long if communities want to meet the needs described in that plan. To put this in context, imagine if President Kennedy had said, “Within 10 years, we will send a man to the moon and return him safely to the earth, but our goal is to fly at 300 miles an hour” (a speed already slower than commercial jetliners at that time).

The results from a national survey I recently completed, sponsored by the International Economic Development Council, paints a good picture of economic outcomes that are consistent with those of national policymakers. However, for broadband to drive economic development, survey respondents said you can’t achieve those ends with the speed goals the FCC (and telcos) advocate.

What Experts Say

About 300 economic development professionals and others driving economic development in their communities participated in this year’s survey. Their feedback was particularly revealing. We divided broadband technology into two categories — wireless and wired — and asked respondents to rate the value of each at impacting seven key economic outcomes most often cited as potential broadband-driven benefits.

Attracting new businesses to an area is a popular justification for pursuing broadband. Thirty-six percent of respondents believe wireless broadband has a direct impact, while 23 percent have experienced or expect it to have an indirect impact. On the question of convincing businesses to stay in an area, the numbers show an almost perfect turnabout, with 24 percent expecting wireless to have a direct impact and 33 percent believing there’s only an indirect impact. Twenty-nine percent see wireless directly helping existing businesses become more competitive, while a greater number see an indirect impact.

When it comes to wireless reviving depressed business districts and residential communities, there’s a notable drop in respondents who have seen or who believe wireless broadband will have an impact. Only 11 percent to 13 percent feel there will be a direct impact, and only 20 percent believe there will even be an indirect impact.

The feedback on wireless’s impact on individual economic development — improving job skills, ability to create wealth, etc. — reveals 23 percent feel wireless will directly improve worker training programs, and 15 percent feel the same about it increasing individuals’ earning potential.

Another survey question asked about the impact that respondents have seen or expect from fiber networks. The data suggest there is much stronger support for fiber as the broadband vehicle of economic change.

Fifty-five percent of respondents believe broadband has had (or will have) a direct impact on attracting businesses to a community, as opposed to 37 percent who believe wireless will do the same. Forty-two percent expect fiber to increase business retention and 40 percent of respondents expect fiber to have a direct impact on improving the competitiveness of local companies.

Need for Speed?

Where respondents and federal policymakers part ways is on the issue of the need for speed. Policymakers should take note that less than 9 percent of respondents believe 2 to 4 Mbps by 2013 is adequate for any of the top five economic development goals that are cited by broadband champions discussing the issue, such as luring and retaining businesses. This doesn’t bode well for what we can expect from such a weak speed goal by 2020 for rural communities.

Equally telling are the percentages of respondents who believe that the minimum access speeds necessary to achieve these economic outcomes must meet or exceed the FCC’s goal of getting 100 Mbps into 100 million homes by 2020. Approximately 55 percent expect that 100 Mbps or more is needed by 2013, fully seven years ahead of the goal. Furthermore, if a community’s goal is to use broadband as a main incentive to attract new businesses, 34 percent of respondents believe this requires a minimum of 1 gigabit speed.   

Whose Broadband Is It, Anyway?

Reading the National Broadband Plan and listening to comments coming from the FCC, you sense a strong faith in incumbents to be the central force in taking broadband in communities to the next level.

This is particularly odd considering incumbents are the crux of many of broadband’s shortcomings in the nation. Survey respondents lean heavily toward communities as the source of future broadband successes, and policymakers need to give community-driven projects a bigger focus in the plan than it has currently.

The issue of which business model will best help broadband achieve economic goals separated respondents into two main camps: those favoring direct community involvement, and those who feel the private sector alone should tackle broadband.  Forty-five percent believe communities should own the broadband network (in whole or in part). Another 6 percent believe a local co-op is the most effective model. And 47 percent believe the network should be owned and operated exclusively by a private provider.

One of the main takeaways from this survey is that policymakers aren’t in touch with or sufficiently responsive to the broadband needs of communities. Otherwise, how can you have a national policy on speed that is so lacking in its ability to address what everyone agrees are significant economic objectives?

Another takeaway, particularly evident when you read survey respondents’ comments, is that local communities have to take their broadband future firmly in hand if they want the economic outcomes their constituents need. Policymakers need heavy pressure from communities or policy directives that facilitate and actively encourage local control of broadband initiatives.