By Gene Grant
Here’s the problem with the idea of deploying broadband to “everyone,” be it Albuquerque or Pie Town: It gets policy-makers loopy. The holiest of postmodern grails, broadband for all has produced all manner of magic carpet ride promises in recent years. And some serious meltdowns. But the pull of broadband—and all its related economic and social theories—is just too juicy to resist.
The president is feeling it, with $7.2 billion for broadband deployment tucked in the national stimulus plan. The governor is feeling it, corralling 13 New Mexican telecom groups together seeking $180 million for rural broadband here.
Like anything from D.C., there are strings attached, known as “net neutrality.” Depending on your point of view, those strings are either a common-sense set of regulations designed to provide consumer mobility and choice, or a yoke on how to manage the rising tide of Internet traffic.
Firmly in the latter—for now—are the major carriers, who have all taken a pass on the loot, uncomfortable with the policy strings. Their argument is, Look, bandwidth intensive traffic like YouTube video uploads costs us a ton, and we want to reserve the right to have some controls. The other side of the argument is obvious. A free and unfettered Internet will unleash creativity, business opportunity, health care cost controls and government efficiency.
But rural broadband deployment is complicated. The U.S. Internet Industry Association (USIIA) issued a report last summer that posits this: Broadband deployment is not the same as broadband adoption. Meaning, if you build it, they may not necessarily come.
This, of course, is fantastically counter to the prevailing rural broadband wisdom, but here’s where USIIA is coming from.
A previous USIIA broadband access study revealed 79 percent of U.S. homes with a landline currently could get broadband if they so chose, along with 96 percent of cable homes. Yet the USIIA position is that deployment has widened with no appreciable uptick in broadband being ordered in rural areas. Why? Because in the view of the USIIA, rural residents tend to be older, poorer and apparently not all that interested. It does not help that rural broadband in many cases is priced as much as $75 a month or more.
We’ve been down this road in Albuquerque. A few of our neighbors have as well, during the Free Wireless Swoon of 2003 to roughly early 2007. Looking back, the results are dodgy.
Cities missed it by seeing citywide wi-fi as a trendy social perk. Cities should have viewed access as a public utility instead, much like water and those sewers.
The Albuquerque City Council got itself turned inside out with the proposal for a wireless cloud over the entirety of the city, driven by then councilor Eric Griego. Rio Rancho tried a “wireless for all” scheme that tanked. Recall the mess with trying to wirelessly cloud the entirety of Sandoval County?
How about those robots that were gonna pull fiber through the sewer system? Remember that big press conference? Now that was a dog and pony. Lord help you during those proposals to simply ask, “Why?” Post-swoon, what has resulted in Albuquerque for free “citywide” wireless?
Ever try to log on at the free city-run wireless on Civic Plaza on a hot August day, staring at a half a bar of signal? That’s useful. How about the bus? The wireless at the Main Library Downtown is crap. This we needed over the entire city?
We certainly weren’t alone looking for a fainting couch back then, but currently no sentient mayor is talking about free citywide wireless anymore, including Mayor Chavez.
The reason is fairly simple, according to Columbia Law School professor and telecommunications policy analyst Tim Wu, who, in 2007, wrote a notable piece for Slate titled, “Where’s My Free Wi-Fi? Why Municipal Networks Have Been Such A Flop.” Cities missed it by seeing citywide wi-fi as a trendy social perk. Cities, Wu counters, should have viewed access as a public utility instead, much like water and those sewers.
Since the swoon, city dwellers now have plenty of free wireless for the price of a cup of coffee. The president, however, wants underserved areas connected, and it still takes pulling fiber to do it, the experts say.
Well, hold on, now. Since the idea of dragging fiber, at the cost of many thousands of dollars a mile, to a population who may or may not value it, something more compelling has surfaced.
Namely, the iPhone. Or more generically, the smartphone.
The explosion of applications for the iPhone—the Apple App Store just announced its 2 billionth download in late September, a little more than a year since its inception—has re-calibrated the argument.
The potential for smartphones was made with startling clarity during the last Apple applications development powwow, when Dr. Cameron Powell, an obstetrician, demonstrated an application he created. It enables obstetricians to monitor real-time data of a pregnant patient's contractions, heartbeat and other vital data remotely from a smartphone.
You think rural health practitioners in New Mexico without broadband connectivity would appreciate one of those bad boys?
There will always be a place for a fat, clean pipe. You can’t run a government agency or a clinic from a cell phone, but consider this: New Mexico ranks ninth in cell phone-only households, and nationally the number is growing. Innovation chases end-users, and that’s where it will go.
In the meantime, let’s grab the stimulus money.
The announcement of recipient awardees has been moved back to early November because of demand (2,200 nationwide applicants for a total of $28 billion, seven times the available amount), and who knows the politics involved with who eventually wins out. But there are a whole lot of folks here who could use a connection of any kind, be it in Albuquerque, Pie Town or anywhere else.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
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