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Broadband Backlash: Where it Comes From and How To Fix it

By Howard Baldwin, Contributing Columnist

It’s easy to find positive news about broadband. Around the globe, government studies show the link between broadband and economic benefit. On the Connected Life Exchange, more examples abound, including my recent posts Broadband: Exploring the Demographic Patterns and How Broadband Reduces Small Business Expenses.

But it’s also becoming easy to find backlash against broadband. It’s neither limited by source or geography. In some cases, politicians rail against its cost; in other cases, citizens rail against its benefits.

Witness these recent stories from around the globe: Britain Has Fallen Out Of Love With Broadband, citing a drop in broadband subscriptions; NBN Faces High Level of Backlash, discussing Australia’s “not in my backyard” concerns about the National Broadband Network; and Broadband Stimulus Grants Seen As Political Flashpoint, discussing United States’ congressional representatives questions of the stimulus investment committed to rural deployments.

As a technology writer, I had my own theories about this phenomenon. Any seasoned journalist can find a negative story, usually not even by digging very deep. There are always people whom I would consider malcontents whose vision falls way short of what’s necessary for an infrastructure deployment as complex as broadband. What’s necessary in that situation is some strong educational reporting that highlights the explicit and implicit benefits of a technology like broadband.

But seasoned journalists also know that assumptions are the root of poor reporting, so I checked in with an expert I’ve spoken to before on other broadband issues: Richard Bennett, Senior Research Fellow for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF). He offered an opposing viewpoint to mine.

Bennett offered some equally seasoned insight as how these backlash situations differ. In short, he noted, sometimes it stems from politics. Sometimes it stems from the ongoing tension between cable and telephone companies. Sometimes it stems from short-term vs. long-term mindsets. Sometimes it stems from the inexorable advance of technology.

When it comes to broadband, he says, “there’s only a tenuous relationship between what’s going in England and Australia and the U.S. There are specific reasons why there is backlash in each case.”

Take England, which Bennett calls “a mess.” The most reliable system there, he says, is Virgin Media’s cable infrastructure, but British Telecom is under pressure from the government to upgrade to fiber-to-the-home (FTTH). It’s very expensive, but offers extensive benefits down the road. The problem: technology — and customer demand — has moved to wireless. “They’re targeting the previous generation of technology,” laments Bennett.

Australia’s backlash against the NBN, says Bennett, combines the worst of political infighting and lack of customer demand. “What’s behind the NBN backlash is a long-standing dispute between Telstra [the telco formerly owned by the government] and the [liberal] Labor party,” Bennett says. The NBN represents kind of a re-privatization of telecom in Australia, to the extent that it would remove the private infrastructure installed in the 1990s by two private cable companies and replace it with fiber.

“It’s a waste of the taxpayer’s money,” says Bennett, “because that cable infrastructure was good for another 20 years.” At the same time, he says, the populace doesn’t see the need for the NBN’s gigabit-per-second speed when “consumers are happy to have 25 megabits per second.”

The tension inherent in this broadband backlash isn’t just a telco versus cable dust-up. It’s also a question of business models, especially as they relate to public-sector utility projects and private-sector deployments. Take the idea of building the NBN in Australia for applications that haven’t even been imagined yet. There’s a certain logic to over-provisioning, after all.

“That’s a big part of the utility model. The government builds utility systems like sewers, water, and electrical plans, never expecting to upgrade them. If broadband is a government utility, you have to make a massive investment in capital upfront to serve all the interests that will emerge during the lifetime of the infrastructure,” says Bennett.

In Bennett’s eyes, however, that’s not how broadband should work. “[Former U.S. Speaker of the House] Tip O’Neill used to say that all politics is local. Broadband policy has to be local. It has to respond to the needs and interests of the local population. It needs to be nimble.” The shift from wireline to wireless — the pre-iPhone world vs. the post iPhone world, as he describes it — proves that broadband (and technology in general) has to be nimble — more nimble than governments are. “None of us can predict the future.”

Furthermore, Bennett laments, politicians aren’t stellar about understanding technological issues. “They’re not motivated to gain the expertise. They want to get re-elected. It doesn’t work when people who don’t understand the problem are making detailed decisions,” he says, adding, “Local people understand local needs, and the technologists need to have input.”

If you want evidence, consider this: the U.S. has traditionally been behind in broadband deployment, embarrassingly so. But the U.S. is leading in one area of telecom: wireless LTE deployment. It’s using this new technology to leapfrog other countries.

Ultimately, Bennett believes that this backlash is good, because it will force the various constituencies — government, business, and citizenry — to think more closely about how to more nimbly harness the power of a technology that keeps evolving. It will force us to be more nimble.

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