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Love the Goal; the Speech, Not So Much

Apparently, I am quoted in the trade press as saying I didn’t like the goal in the National Broadband Plan of 100Mbps to 100 million homes.  Actually, what I thought I said was that I liked the goal but didn’t like the speech that announced the goal because of how it defined the Plan.  But here is the relevant part of yesterday’s talk, as prepared for delivery, which explains why I thought the speech was counterproductive and that the President’s speech yesterday did a much better job of defining a vision that will lead our country in the right way.

“The President’s speech today, perhaps the most significant speech ever delivered by a President on the subject of communications, demonstrates his understanding of the priority we must give to make sure we have a good mobile communications highway everywhere, as well as advanced applications.

Not everyone understands this and frankly, the roll-out process for the Plan bears some of the blame.

Unfortunately, during the rollout of the Plan, one speech—which established a goal of 100Mbps to 100 million homes—attracted a great deal of attention.

I didn’t have a problem with the goal.  As we explain in Chapter 2 of the plan, goals are an important way of setting a north star on our compass.

But by emphasizing the speed of the wireline network, we created three problems.

First, we muddied the waters in the universal service debate.  Rural representatives constantly argue that if urban areas have 100 Mbps, they are entitled to exactly the same, whatever the cost.

There are many problems with their argument but that is for another time.  The point is, those of us who favor USF reform have spent too much time addressing the expectation of rural telephone companies that they are entitled to be subsidized to offer anything urban companies offer.

Second, it focused too much attention on the hortatory part of the Plan—the aspiration—rather than the specific calls for governments and others to act, that in my view are far more important.

We tried to atone for this sin with the only footnote in the plan.  At the end of Chapter 2 we reference the Shakespeare play in which one character says to another “I can call the ghosts from the vasty deep” and the other responds, “Why so can I, or any man.  But if you call them, will they come.”

But most important, the speech distracted attention from the real value of the Plan and broadband for America.

I can illustrate the problem with something that happened last summer.

My colleague Erik Garr and I wrote a piece for the Washington Post advocating the replacement of textbooks with eBooks, as a digital platform for education has a number of advantages.

The most important in my view is how it allows a student struggling with material to access a number of resources to help him or her better understand the ideas, or delve more deeply into the subject matter.

This prompted a letter to the Post by a rural telco lobbyist pointing out that our proposal was an outrage, as we wanted 100Mbps for urban residents but only 4 Mbps for rural.

There are many problems with her argument but thing that bothered me most, and that she later admitted was totally flawed, was the implication in the letter that eBooks take 100Mbps to work.

But she thought, and got those who read her letter to think, that it is the speed of the network that counts, rather than the opportunity created by the speed of the knowledge exchange.

She, and frankly we as a society, are thinking about the problem all wrong.

And that speech, and its short-term success in generating stories that defined the meaning of the Plan for many, contributed to the problem.”

For another speech I gave which gives more context for how we are thinking about broadband policy the wrong way, go to:

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