The Right Question: What Should We Do, Internationally, for the Billions Not Online

The Right Question: What Should We Do, Internationally, for the Billions Not Online

Imagine how much more effective the U.S. lobbying at the ITU would be if we had a concrete plan for connecting the 4 billion people without broadband.
Marc Cooper at the Columbia CITI event confronted the nay-sayers who believe ITU and WCIT essentially shouldn’t do anything. We all know getting governments involved can muck things up, but is doing nothing a viable alternative?

“We hear about this incredibly successful space. Last century, the PSTN was a complete disaster for 80% of the people on this planet. 84% of the people on this planet do not have broadband. They have been left behind. They don’t want to regulate the Internet. They want to participate. The economics won’t get to these people in the timeframe they want. What are we going to do with it in the international space?” Marc, a tireless advocate, startled me with this. It’s so obvious, but hasn’t been part of the discussion.

Should we have a Marshall Plan or Kennedy-style Alliance for Progress? Instead of saying what not to do, can we demonstrate some American ideas that could really make a difference? Can corporations like AT&T and Google taking such strong positions “against” find positive contributions they can make?

Ambassador Terry Kramer currently is Dr. No, shooting down the substance of the ITU advances. That puts him in a dark corner of “non-negotiable” demands. NTIA Director Strickling’s comment “We will not accept,” is dangerous. Does the U.S. want to cut itself off from an International consensus on the Internet?

Here’s some ideas:

From the corporations:

Lower Internet costs by placing servers locally.
Google is already doing this aggressively because it improves performance and generally brings down costs. Netflix has an informal policy of providing a server at no charge to any U.S. ISP who wants one and can extend that policy as it expands in Latin America. Servers can be simple $5,000 boxes so needn’t be expensive. Google, Akamai, and AT&T/Verizon as they expand in the contnet delivery business can set a policy of serving locally at any country’s Internet Exchange Point.

Create a small core of experienced executives available to smaller carriers and regulators. No one understands networks better than the people building them. I’ve always listened to the carrier engineers, whom I consider my prime source for the engineering. Verizon executives like the recently retired Dick Lynch and Mark Wegleitner or BT’s Mick Reeves have enormous practical experience to share. Cisco already does this, essentially providing Robert Pepper’s expertise to worldwide regulators. Pepper was the brains of the U.S. FCC when we were at our most creative. He’s now informally called on by everyone from Carlos Slim to the Chinese, as well as the ITU itself.
The ITU sees standards as a way to ensure that the less experienced operators don’t get misled by vendors into the wrong technology. Well-meaning, but the standards process typically is too slow and political to serve that function well.

Be open to academics and international groups seeking to provide “best practice guidelines,” especially standard costs.
The U.S. Broadband Plan did this effectively, determining (with massive help from people in the industry) how much it really costs to reached the “unserved.” There’s no good reference for industry standard costs, partly because the companies keep the data so close. Australia’s NBN is wildly over-priced, compared to what I know Verizon and peers have spent on similar projects. That’s a good test of the competence of the management. I’ve acquired some cost data over the years, taking advantage of comments that come out during financial presentations and the like. But well-sourced cost information, probably anonymously aggregated by an academic or non-profit, would be enormously helpful. An AT&T or Verizon could move this process.

Research and advance white spaces and other sharing technologies that expand wireless capacity
Google, led by Rick Whitt, has played an important role in the regulation of white spaces, the most promising way to open more spectrum to efficient shared use. Google’s Motorola, as well as Alcatel, Ericsson, Huawei and the other manufacturers, have good business reasons to invest in the needed R & D, A white space radios should eventually cost little more than WiFi access points, Jim Carlson tells me. But first we need chips designed and volume production. Bringing down costs from nearly $1,000/connection to about $100 is practical and would be a major boon to delivering broadband in less developed areas.

Governments could

Aggregate and simplify loan and aid programs.
Hamadoun Touré isn’t looking for increased government handouts. He believes that the successful projects are inspired by finding profitable market opportunities, not charity. But there clearly is some good in existing programs, most of which are so cumbersome to use they rarely achieve their objectives. Much of the “mobile miracle” in Africa has been facilitated by Chinese government loan programs and World Bank loans I believe have been important in bringing fiber. U.S. AID provided a kickstart for some Kenya mobile.
Ambassador Terry Kramer will be far more convincing going to Dubai with “Here’s how we can help” as part of his presentation.

Prove out the power of sharing large chunks of spectrum
NTIA and FCC leaders in 2012 have come to understand what the technology community has been screaming at them for years: sharing creates far more capacity than exclusive use of spectrum. Throughput per megahertz on something like WiFi can be 3-10 times as efficient what AT&T or Verizon achieve with the same amount of spectrum, because the spectrum is reused locally. Spectrum monopolies have gone too far and no more should be created when spectrum is a scarce resource.
Supporting sharing is the greatest achievement of Larry Strickling’s NTIA, is essential to the White House PCAST report and is clear in the latest FCC speeches. But sharing is anathema to the large telcos breaking business plans dependent on scarcity. The discussion is obscure, referring to certain government bands and white space experiments.
Kenya and Rwanda know this, both planning to create 100 megahertz spectrum bands for greater capacity. 100 megabits in a shared deployment produces something like 30-50% more capacity than when broken into five 20 megahertz bands. The Africans (with Alcatel experts in support) are the international leaders here.

Go beyond corporate interests in technology training
The US has a large technology training problem in telecom, USTTI. But it’s severely compromised by its heavy corporate agenda. It’s got a board loaded with corporate lobbyists, lacking experts, independents, or civil society. Qualcomm, Verizon, Comcast, Intel, Murdoch’s News Corp, Verisign and similar lobbyists are unlikely to effectively see what’s needed in less developed countries. But that’s who is in charge.

Ideas welcome and important.

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