Why Broadband Critical Mass Matters More Than Ever

By John Logan

A recent study shows 43

percent of online households connect to the Internet via broadband. Good news? Not good enough, actually. It is not broadband critical mass. The statistic largely ignores the fact that millions of citizens in the United States have no Internet access at all. Hurricane Katrina reflects how lack of communications can keep people in harms way and keep them from being helped.

Hurricane Katrina created a communications collapse with more than 3 million people losing wireline phone service and any Internet connectivity over those lines. In addition, the natural disaster caused a thousand wireless towers to collapse, making cell phone calls for help impossible. Several 911 communications centers, the foundation of emergency response, became inoperable.

Restoring communications and Internet connectivity, key to rescue and relief efforts, has been a Herculean task in the affected region. The work of carrier incumbents and new entrants, both wireline and wireless, to restore broadband service has shown a great deal of dedication, compassion and innovation. However, the challenge to restore Internet connectivity again would not be so overwhelming if our telecommunications markets reflected the diversity and redundancy needed to meet the standard for emergency preparedness expeditious response and recovery. Government and private sector emergency response depends on having in place widespread, redundant and diverse communications systems, something largely lacking in todays U.S. telecommunications markets.

The real statistic on broadband critical mass the one that all policymakers should heed is percapita broadband penetration. According to a recent ITU study, the United States has fallen from 13th in per-capita broadband penetration to 16th, behind Korea, Canada and other countries.

Measured in terms of total numbers of users, China soon will have more people with access to broadband than the United States. FCC figures indicate broadband providers have 33 million subscribers in the United States, out of a U.S. population of 321 million. This compares to 160.6 million cell phone subscribers at the end of 2003, reflecting a nationwide penetration rate of approximately 54 percent of the population for cell phones, but only 10 percent for broadband.

Critical mass depends upon robust competition. Todays broadband policies strangle robustness and delay widespread penetration. In most regional markets, youll find perhaps two broadband providers, offering no pricing choice and no diversity of services. Those who herald the broadband status quo ignore that the cell phone market once reflected such an environment at most, two providers, with little price difference and no service in a number of markets. What cured no choice and expanded access tremendously? Todays high cell phone penetration rate is traced to government promoting competition in the mobile phone market, something broadband desperately needs.

As the traumas of Hurricane Katrina continue, what is clear is that more is at stake than the economic progress that broadband critical mass access portends. Response and recovery efforts need critical mass, with flexible and efficient technologies that allow for service to be provided and restored expeditiously. Wireless broadband, which has emerged as a facilities-based competitor to legacy systems, has been among the fastest vital communications to be rebuilt and used by first responders and citizens in the Gulf region.

Other technologies including VoIP phones, mesh networking, and Wi-Fi and WiMAX technologies operating on unlicensed spectrum, that bring competition and further broadband penetration, have proved vital. Wi-Fi mesh technology is showing it is one of the most robust communications systems one that will stay up the longest when a catastrophic event occurs and can be restored first to aid rescue efforts. For a competitive telecommunications infrastructure and service market to emerge, these new technologies must have a pivotal role.

The tangible difference these technologies have made is found in the municipal Wi-Fi networks. At sites in downtown New Orleans, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, Chalmette Refinery, Shreveport, Baton Rouge and the Houston Astrodome, municipal networks now are providing critical communications capability to emergency services, assisting agencies and those evacuated. It is allowing resource coordination, e-mail, voice over Wi-Fi, public access, insurance claims and video surveillance. The ease and speed by which these networks were deployed reflects the vibrancy and innovation of the technology. That the response and recovery is a result of joint efforts of government agencies, incumbent wireline and wireless companies, legacy equipment manufacturers, and new entrant manufacturers and service providers reflects the dedication of government and industry and the willingness to choose innovation over the status quo.

What is chilling to both emergency response and expanding broadband access is that in the last year, Colorado, Nebraska and Pennsylvania have passed laws precluding municipal broadband services to the public. Louisiana itself passed a law requiring a vote of the community if that community seeks to provide broadband. These laws and similar proposals in other states and the Congress are pursued by incumbent phone companies seeking to protect their broadband market share. The nation cannot afford internal protectionism. Efforts to stifle the market and deter competition do more than deny innovation, choice and better prices to the consumer. They interfere with the ability to provide the diverse and redundant infrastructure and service that is the core of emergency preparedness.

A diverse telecommunications market, providing redundancy, expeditious response and recovery in emergencies and a broad array of services to all Americans depends on a competitive market. Wireless broadband, whether provided by municipal governments or wireless providers, presents tangible facilities-based competition. Access to the incumbents network is not necessary. It can bring a diverse infrastructure that is resilient and able to speed response and recovery. It can be the catalyst to broadband access where consumers have choice of price and service. But to reach the critical mass, it requires allowing entrants whether local governments, utilities or private providers to compete and a comprehension that unlicensed spectrum must be of a quality such as that presented by the 700MHz band to make a difference. Only then can one truly speak of reaching critical mass for broadband access.

John Logan is the former Acting Chief of the Cable Services Bureau at the FCC. He is a private practice telecom attorney based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at


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