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Lessons for Cities from the National Broadband Plan

June 8th, 2010 by Admin User

[Director of Consumer Research John Horrigan prepared this speech June 2, 2010 for delivery at the event "High Speed Fiber and Baltimore's Future"  in Baltimore.]

Today, I would like to give you a brief “Broadband Plan 101” lesson – and do so in a way that leaves you with a sense of how Baltimore can put broadband to work for economic and community development. The grand vision, as laid out in the National Broadband Plan (NBP), is to have 90% of America connected to 100 Mbps home broadband by 2020. It is heartening to see Baltimore – the place I call home – be one of the first cities since the Plan’s release to convene an event focused on how best to use high-speed connectivity for economic and community development.

Let me lay out the basics of the plan, and then talk about how cities can take advantage of the “broadband moment” that the National Broadband Plan has helped to facilitate.

I. Origins of the National Broadband Plan
The stimulus bill – the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) – directed the Federal Communications Commission to develop a national broadband plan with three main goals in mind.
1) Extensive deployment of infrastructure: This meant analyzing the state of broadband infrastructure in the U.S., i.e., where infrastructure is (and its quality) and where it isn’t.
2) Universal Adoption: This called on the FCC to assess the state of broadband adoption among consumers and, importantly, developing a strategy to promote adoption of affordable service and its use.
3) Use broadband for national purposes: This part of the statute asked the FCC to create a strategy for the use of broadband for consumer welfare, civic engagement, public safety and homeland security, community development, health care delivery, energy independence and efficiency, worker training, and economic growth.
The Commission set out to develop the plan just under a year ago, and the NBP was delivered to Congress on March 16, 2010. It is worth pointing out that the Plan is not self-effectuating; that is, it is a series of recommendations, not directives. The Plan’s recommendations – and there are some 200 of them – have to be enacted by some institution. For many recommendations, that institution is the FCC, but other recommendations call for action by other agencies or Congress.

II. Outlines of the Plan
The Plan itself is 377 pages and I am not going to attempt a detailed summary, except to talk about how we thought of the different problems and our recommended solutions.

  • Deployment of networks: The Plan estimated the gap of non-coverage of terrestrial broadband, cost of closing gap, and recommending means of closing it. This is a 5% problem. Analysis conducted by the NBP shows 95% of housing units have access to at least one terrestrial broadband provider. We estimated it would cost $24 billion to address this problem (with a 4 Mbps downstream and 1 up solution).
  • Spectrum: An important part of network deployment is wireless access – which means determining whether there is enough spectrum to meet growing needs. The NBP identifies a looming crisis in spectrum and proposes that 500 Mhz be made available in the coming years. This is not only to make the U.S. the leader in mobile communications – but also to provide more competition in the market for wireline providers. Baltimore is lucky enough to have an experiment about to get underway with 4G service provided by Sprint.
  • Adoption among consumers: This involved estimating who do not have broadband, why, and recommending ways to promote adoption. This is a 35% problem, as NBP finds that share of Americans don’t have broadband at home. We determined the size of this problem through a national survey that focused on broadband adoption and, importantly, the reasons people don’t have broadband at home. The survey found that broadband is not distributed evenly. Around the average of 65% of Americans having broadband at home, several population segments were below that average:
    • Senior citizens: 35% of those over age 65 have broadband at home.
    • Low-income Americans (those in households making $20K per year or less): 40% have broadband.
    • High school grads: 46% have broadband at home (compared with 87% of those who have at least attended college.
    • Hispanics: 49% (English and Spanish-speaking) have broadband.
    • African Americans: 59% have broadband – and this group has had a fairly rapid growth in broadband adoption recently after several years of slow growth.
  • We also sought to understand the barriers to adoption. We found, among non-adopters of broadband, that the main reasons were:
    • Cost – 36% cite this as to why they don’t have broadband, and this breaks down into the monthly fee (15%) and the affordability of computer (10%).
    • Digital literacy – 22% cite this reason, meaning they are not comfortable using modern computer and other gadgetry or they worry a great deal about security of personal information online.
    • Relevance – 19% say they do not believe broadband is sufficiently compelling to get it. These may be dial-up users content with occasionally checking email and skittish about undertaking the hassle to switch.
  • Adoption recommendations: The survey findings helped frame recommendations to promote affordable adoption that focus on:
    • Reform of Universal Service Fund: The plan suggests creating a Connect America fund that lets eligible consumers defray some of the cost of their home broadband connection.
    • National Digital Literacy Corps: Congress should create this initiative to provide training and outreach to non-adopting communities.
    • Public-private partnerships: The Plan recommends that NTIA explore how federal agencies might work with the private sector to provide access and training for non-adopting clients served by specific agencies.
  • National purposes: The question for the national purposes stream of work was: How can broadband make outcomes better in specified areas, such as health care or education? This work proceeded from the assumption that broadband isn’t going to be the silver bullet in each of these areas, but it will be part of the solution in making each of these sectors function better. The plan, for each of these issues, makes a series of recommendations that fall broadly into two categories:
  • Clearing away hurdles legacy government systems may impose on realizing broadband’s potential. To take one example in education, schools use patchwork of proprietary systems for educational records; Department of Education could encourage adoption of standards for electronic educational records. This, in turn, could help educators better tailor teaching to student needs.
  • Unleashing the power of personal data to realize broadband’s potential. A good example pertains to electronic health records, where easily available data on a patients’ health and history could improve the efficiency and effectiveness of health care delivery. A crucial part of the equation here is ensuring that people feel that their personal data is safe, private, and secure in these new systems that have so much potential for better health care delivery, learning outcomes, or energy management.


III. What the National Broadband Plan means for cities
Let me now turn to a series of points about what cities can do to take advantage of this broadband moment in the United States. Convening an event such as this is the first step, but we need to think about a course for the future. Here is a list of ideas:

1) Understand the broadband environment in the city. In formulating the broadband plan, we went to great lengths to understand the state of adoption, competition, and quality of network infrastructure. This not only enables all stakeholders – in the public, private, and non-profit sectors – to make better decisions. It also, since it is data-driven, creates the right environment for discussion on the important issues.

a) This also means assessing existing capacity in the city. Where does infrastructure run? What are the existing initiatives designed to provide training on how to use computers and broadband?
b) Relevant to this point is a recent announcement about broadband planning and states. On May 28, NTIA announced that states can pursue additional federal funding for broadband planning that includes activities to support state broadband task forces, advisory boards, local or regional planning efforts and programs to promote increased computer ownership and internet usage. Baltimore and the State of Maryland should look into this.

2) Lower the cost of deploying infrastructure in the city. “Infrastructure” is the title to Chapter 6 of the Plan and I would encourage all local officials to look at it. It talks about pole attachments, collecting information about the availability and location of poles, and how best to use ducts and conduits. For instance, the expense of obtaining permits, accessing pole attachments and rights-of-way can amount to 20% of the cost of fiber optic deployment. And the cost of access to utility poles can vary considerably. The plan makes recommendations about pole attachments – and it may be that not every recommendation makes sense for every city. But city officials should unquestionably take a look at these recommendations.
3) Support broadband access at city libraries: To carry out basic functions today – like applying for a job – broadband access is indispensible. For those who can’t afford broadband, the library is usually the place to go. I was heartened to see an article several months ago in the Baltimore Sun that noted that Baltimore was holding the line against budget cuts for the library – in part because of demand at public access internet terminals. This is especially important for low-income Americans.
4) Explore partnerships: The NBP plan recommends the development of public-private partnerships to address adoption gaps. The NBP recommendation is focused on how federal agencies might partner with the private sector to promote adoption – think, for instance, about broadband training programs being connected to public benefits programs. However, such partnerships at the local level may be great ways to connect people who need broadband with entities with the expertise to provide the training and support to get people online.
5) Understand & contribute to best practices around the country: The NBP recommends that the National Telecommunications & Information Administration set up a National Broadband Clearinghouse to promote understanding of best practices and information sharing across different communities. Cities should encourage NTIA to implement this recommendation – and should be active participants in developing and contributing to this Clearinghouse.
6) Undertake efforts to use broadband to improve services – such as education, energy, and government. Just as the broadband plan has “national purposes” cities can focus attention on “community purposes.” Bringing stakeholders together to see how broadband can improve performance in these areas is the first step to making broadband a tool for solving problems in these areas.
7) Monitor & Assess Programs: A lot of money – public and private – is going into broadband, especially to programs designed to convert non-adopters into home broadband adopters. But we don’t really know a lot about what kinds of programs really work in luring people to broadband adoption and use. This suggestion is not just about good government – though it is important to assess how government money is spent. It is also about improving the understanding of how programs work so that we know what programs should be sustained in the future and which shouldn’t.

IV. Conclusion
Let me leave you with two things:
1) The NBP is always in Beta. The FCC laid out a strategic vision for making the United States the leader in the key infrastructure for the 21st Century. The recommendations we make, we believe, are pathway forward toward that goal. However, broadband is inherently dynamic – as an infrastructure and as a platform for innovation. This means the Plan itself has to evolve in the coming years, and it will do so from the bottom-up – animated by innovators in the public and private sector.
2) People like those gathered today will make the Plan work. Without you, the Plan remains just a document. I congratulate you for coming together around this topic to help Baltimore become smarter, more innovative, and more inclusive community. The work of the National Broadband Plan is only beginning, and we will need efforts such as this to realize its full potential.



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