Wireless Week Article: National Broadband Plan – A Work in Progress

Wireless Week Article: National Broadband Plan – A Work in Progress


The piece appeared in Wireless Week Show Daily today at CTIA.

Last week, the FCC unveiled its long-awaited “National Broadband Plan.” The plan gets a number of things right and there are some tasks that need more attention.

First of all, the FCC must be commended highly for the process of arriving at a broad set of recommendations, for making the proceedings as open as they can be and for inviting participation from all players – big and small through a variety of forums including face-to-face meetings. I attended one such meeting in person and caught several online and can attest to the quality of the debate and the openness of the forums.

Second, by putting a goal for the nation, there is a visible target that everyone can rally around. One of the best thing the plan does is to equate the necessity of a broadband infrastructure to that of electricity and begins the plan by saying “Broadband is the great infrastructure challenge of the early 21st century.” Hopefully, this will magnify the urgency of developing a plan that enables sustainable leadership in broadband infrastructure for the US. And challenge breeds opportunities.

Third, by defining the plan as a work in progress, FCC affords itself the flexibility based on the conditions on the ground, be it continued spectrum shortages or the introduction of new technologies.

Fourth, one of the key elements introduced was “transparency” and “measurement” of broadband variables in the market, something we have advocated for a long time (see our paper “State of the (Mobile) Broadband Nation” which was referred in the FCC’s national plan).

Finally, the document does a good job of integrating the plan into specific verticals esp. the ones that the government can have a major impact on, namely – Health, Education, Energy, Public Safety, Governance, and Economic Opportunity in general.

The main highlights of the plan are:

1. The plan sets the goal of 100 Mbps for 100 million households (practically everyone) by 2020

2. It sets the goal of 1 Gbps to anchor institutes like schools, hospitals, etc.

3. It seeks to expand broadband coverage to 90% of the nation

4. It ups the broadband definition from “faster than dialup” to “at least 4 Mbps” (significant improvement)

5. It looks to make the broadband connectivity affordable to rural communities, etc, through the use of the Universal Service Fund

6. It seeks greater transparency in performance, pricing, and competition

7. The plan recognizes the shortage of spectrum and seeks 500 MHz spectrum by 2020 of which 60% should be available in 5 years

8. It looks to provide enough spectrum and infrastructure for the first responders and public safety

9. It seeks to reduce the red tape and expedite reviews and approvals that the government is responsible for

Setting ambitious goals is laudable. However, the devil is always in the details – the hows and whens of the plan. The biggest challenge for the commission is going to be in procuring the spectrum in a timely fashion. It will run into both legal as well as political challenges.

As we go about refining the plan and executing on the recommendations, the industry will need to keep a few things in mind. First of all, the additional spectrum is not going to be the panacea for the mobile broadband consumption, especially in the short-term. By the time the first batch of spectrum becomes available, the consumption would have more than quadrupled, so the industry needs solutions for the immediate future.

Next, industry needs to figure out ways to build the infrastructure that is not utterly dependent on the additional spectrum. So, we must invest in R&D that provides breakthroughs in using existing spectrum more efficiently to provide more throughput. Also, fiber penetration will matter a lot as it can be used to off load a good majority of the mobile data traffic on an as needed basis.

The plan does a good job of connecting the critical vertical industries to the broadband infrastructure. However, this is where the other sectors need to step up and enmesh their evolution with progress in the broadband infrastructure. For example, unless the health industry fundamentally changes the way it goes about doing its business, any amount of bandwidth will have no impact. Almost all of the medical institutions don’t even communicate to its customers via TXT, using broadband as a tool is too farfetched for many of the old guards. The situation is similar with education, public safety, energy, and governance.

The plan will also benefit from more intermediate milestones, so we can measure the progress. If the goal is to make the nation competitive and progressive, then, the congress needs to be onboard ASAP. The FCC perhaps needs more regulatory authority to navigate the maze and help prioritize the various efforts during the course of this decade. If this effort is not coordinated well and if we spend too much time on debating rather than doing, we will still be bickering about what broadband means in 2020 while the Japanese go past 100 Gbps.

Chetan Sharma is President of Chetan Sharma Consulting a premier management consulting and strategic advisory firm in the mobile space. He is also the author of 5 books on mobile including “Wireless Broadband: Conflict and Convergence.” www.chetansharma.com