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US Broadband report: US government gives itself a big slap on the back

White House

© Flickr/CC-licence/Greychr

  • White House report praises Obama administration for broadband progress
  • Although major investments made by US commercial service providers
  • While federal agencies make only modest progress
  • Recommendations for the future are vague and unambitious

Yesterday TelecomTV covered the findings of the latest report from the United Nations Broadband Commission revealing that even in 2015 the World Wide Web remains a pipe dream with 57 per cent of the earth's population unable to access the Internet. What's more, the UN says that in the US, 15 per cent of the population still has no Internet access either.

Then, today, a new document plopped fatly into the editorial inbox. The "White House Broadband Council Opportunity Report and Recommendations" is a smug document that offers a rather more rosy take on the spread and evolution of broadband in the USA, claiming that what it describes as "high-speed" wireless broadband coverage" is now "available" to 98 per cent of the US population. Referring to broadband Internet access as “essential infrastructure for communities" the report commends US ISPs and network operators for their "commitment and massive investment", almost as if they are providing Internet services from altruistic rather commercial motives.

However, the report is also a pretty shameless paean to the Obama administration claiming that, "Over the past six years, under President Obama’s leadership the United States has expanded broadband access, bringing millions of people online and creating significant new economic, educational and social opportunities."

It continues, "Since the President took office, investments from the Federal government have helped deploy or upgrade more than 110,000 miles of network infrastructure, and more than 45 million additional Americans have adopted broadband Internet."

The report goes on; "And as a country we’ve made high-speed wireless coverage available to 98 per cent of Americans. Over the past several months, the Administration has doubled down on these efforts. In July, we launched the new ConnectHOME program in twenty-seven cities and one tribal nation to help bring Internet to more than 275,000 low-income households."

The semantic wording of the report is interesting. For example, the developments made "as a country" refer to commercial, for-profit Internet developments - and absolutely nothing wrong with that. After all, over the course of last year alone, US broadband service providers spent US$78 billion on extending and improving all forms of Internet access.

But now, compare that to the claims made for the Obama administration with reference to the part played by the Federal government in 'helping' to deploy or upgrade 110,000 miles of network infrastructure and launching an initiative to "'help' bring the Internet to just over a quarter of a million low-income households. OK so they apply to markets and demographic groups that are of little interest to for-profit ISPs but they seem decidedly modest when placed alongside the investments and achievements of commercial Internet companies.

Could do better

Further into the guts of the report the writers admit that "more needs to be done" and point out that "75 million Americans don’t have a high-speed Internet connection at home" and re-affirm the obvious point that "rural parts of the country lag behind cities and more densely populated suburbs."

The document adds, "Even where broadband uptake is high, there’s room for improvement… nearly 51 million Americans cannot purchase a wired broadband connection with download speeds of at least 25 Mbps, and only 63 percent have access to speeds of 100 Mbps or more. To bring better, faster broadband to more Americans, we need to significantly increase competition and investment." And that, it seems, is why President Obama launched the Broadband Opportunity Council as "a whole-of-government effort to expand broadband deployment and adoption."

The Broadband Opportunity Council spent five months reviewing every major Federal programme that provides support for broadband - all the way through from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services to the Department of Justice  and the Council's  four broad  recommendations were submitted to the White House in August this year.

They are that Federal programmes should be revisited and modernised to expand and enhance support for broadband investments. That communities should be provided with the tools and resources to attract broadband investment and promote its meaningful use. That broadband deployment and competition be promoted and increased via "expanded access" to Federal assets, and finally that R&D, market analysis and data collection relating to broadband should be improved. All very laudable but also very vague.

Readers are also informed that "broadband is a top priority for President Obama" and that the e administration will "be pushing forward aggressively to implement these recommendations" during the final months of his presidency.

Among other actions, government agencies are said to be committed to the modernisation of federal programmes valued at $10 billion to include broadband as "eligible program expenditure." Furthermore, an online inventory of federal assets, ("such as Department of the Interior telecommunications towers)" will be created "to help support faster and more economical broadband deployments to remote areas of the country." But then surely someone, somewhere, already knows where these towers are, and how hard can it be to input that data to a central record? As an initiative it can't be much of a challenge.

Castles in the air

The remaining White House Broadband Council recommendations are that "applications for broadband permitting processes to support broadband deployment and foster competition should be streamlined" and that "a portal for information on federal broadband funding and loan programs to help communities easily identify resources as they seek to expand access to broadband should be created." In other words, yet another expensive government website will, eventually, hit the ether.

These are not exactly earth-shattering proposals that will quickly and radically improve Internet access for those in the US who remain marginal to the digital economy. Indeed, the more one reads these recommendations the more the paucity of ambition and lack of imagination shows through.

Ironically, given the amount of sticky self-congratulation oozes through the report, it does actually conclude that to bring faster, cheaper broadband into more US homes and small businesses "will take more than the Federal government." Now there's a surprise.

Grasping that reality is apparently why "the Administration is calling on the private sector, local, state and Tribal governments, community organisations and foundations to work with us to tackle some of the big challenges, like opening up critical data sources around the country and helping communities become ‘broadband ready’ to encourage more investment.

However, this governmental ploy of "calling upon" various bodies, organisations and agencies to work with one another and the administration without prescribed goals, targets and over-arching legislative or regulatory framework to hold the whole "castles in the air" conceit together is little more than wishful thinking and a prime example of essentially meaningless bureaucratic waffle.

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