Friday, January 02, 2009

Rural Broadband Hearing

On December 29, 2008, US Senator for Minnesota Amy Klobuchar held a hearing on the need for better better rural access to broadband. This blog entry is going to be my (somewhat random) thoughts that were sparked by the hearing. If you want details about the hearing itself, go to the great summary by Ann Treacy on the Blandin on Broadband blog.

The audience was a round up of all the usual suspects:
  • Telcom industry lobbyists, consultants and association folks;
  • People working for Blandin Foundation's broadband project;
  • Members of the MN Ultra High-Speed Broadband Taskforce;
  • Reporters;
  • An employee of the FCC who happened to be in town on vacation (but she usually works on Digitial TV issues);
  • At least one librarian.
There were a few members of the public in attendance.

Senator Klobuchar's opening comments included her desire that the Obama economic stimulous package include incentives/funding for expanding rural broadband. She noted how the US had dropped behind other developed counties in broadband access and that Minnesota had dropped to 44th out of the 50 states in Internet access speed. She compared the need for funding to the Rural Electrification Administration in the depression of the 1930s.

The panel presenting testimony (organized by Klobuchar staff) had the type of people you'd expect considering the goal of pointing out the need for rural access to broadband:
  • A rural state senator;
  • A school technology director (for a largely rural district);
  • a manager of a rural telephone cooperative;
  • A manager for a (primarily rural) health provider;
  • A small town/rural economic development director;
  • A person who works with Blandin Foundation.
The one surprise was the president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) (the union that mainly respresents Qwest workers).

All the rural panelsits talked about the need for broadband access. They had the typical examples and the typical horror stories. It seemed like everyone thought just getting access to broadband would solve the problem. There was little or no discussion about the need for access to hardware and software for the low income residents. There was no talk about the need to help people learn that there are reasons they want to be on broadband. There was no talk about the need to have content that was meaningful for all their residents (most seemed to be only considering the middle class in their analaysis).

The presentation by the rural telephone coop manager (West Central Telephone) was interesting. He talked about providing fiber to the home in his rural area--that they were able to do it because:
  • Federal loans for rural telecomunications provided relatively low cost finance;
  • They were a monopoly--that no one else wants to serve the low density area they serve;
  • They are owned by their clients;
  • Because they only grow if the economy of their service area grows.
They are using units that combine small solar and wind generation equipment to power the electronics needed to run a fiber system across such a large area.

The president of the CWA seemed to mainly parrot the basic line of Qwest: That competion in telecommunications is bad. He was even going back to ancient (in telecom terms) history of the 1954 decision by the FCC that ATT could not provide cable service. I wasn't surprised this, to me, CWA has always seemed to be a captive of the telephone companies (ATT, Northwestern Bell, US West, and Qwest in our area).

No one brought up the issue that the economic self interest of telecommunicaitons companies depends on their size and total service areas.
  • West Central Telephone for example is willing to invest in their area because they will only grow if the economy of their service area grows.
  • A municipal owned telecom provider (privately or cooperatively owned) will similarly invest in providing broadband service to their community because that is the only way they will grow.
  • Qwest will not invest in broadband in rural areas or small towns because they view their growth comming from the metropolitan areas they serve (and even in those areas, they seem more interested in milking the investments made 30 to 50 years ago than in making new investments.
The one interesting idea that was presented (besides the rural telephone cooperative example) was the idea of one highspeed broadband connection to the home, regulated as a common carrier with different companies providing different (and competing) applications over the same wire.

At the beginning of the public comment period, Rick King, the chair of the MN Ultra High-Speed Broadband Taskforce made some good but generic comments about the need for broadband service across the state. He mentioned that the final report of the taskforce will be available in the fall of 2009.

Why is it taking the taskforce until fall 2009 to come out with their recommendations. They started meeting on August 15, 2008. Even for a government task force, that seems to be like a long time! Especially considering that it would be great to have a report for this legislative session and for the new Obama administration. MN state government--always a step behind.

I didn't stay for the rest of the public comment period (my parking meter was expiring) but based on Ann's blog post, nothing exciting happened.

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