No-one wants to be last

It’s no longer bailout. Now it’s investment! And folks are lining up to be picked as the best infrastructure for the federal government to invest in. Is government worst when it tries to pick favorites? The telecommunications industry might just prove that to be true.

I can see the logic. Just as Eisenhower invested in our great Interstate system, Obama looks likely to want to improve the Digital Superhighway! Not only will it create jobs but it will also grease the skids for many other forms of economic development. Doing business would be faster, the world being brought oh so quickly to your desktop. Customers, suppliers, manufacturers, and distributors would all have more reliable access to one another.

But, fundamentally, in doing so the Federal Government will have to choose which broadband infrastructure to provide, to what standard, and to whom. And therein lies the problem … what criteria will be used to choose? Will it be fair to all providers of broadband? Will it be fair to all users of broadband? And, can we see far enough into the future to make sure we get it right and don’t invest in the wrong technology?

Let’s start with which infrastructure to provide. Should it be wired or wireless? The telephone companies and cooperatives would love it if we said wired. They will argue that they are ‘spade ready’ in that they know how to lay the wires, have the people and equipment to do so, and know where next to do the laying. On the other hand, the wireless folks point out that they, too, already have everything ready to go and point out the improvements to wireless service wouldn’t just be limited to broadband uses. You’d be able to use your cell phone, Blackberry, laptop, and other electronic gizmos more reliably, in more places.

What standard of broadband should the government pay for? Being a bit of a quality freak I would answer the best and fastest it can afford. Beyond the obvious tradeoff between quality and quantity, there’s a few more devils in the details. Cable companies would be over-the-moon if the Feds specified next-generation speeds of 40 to 50 megabits per second. So, should we start digging and start boosting the fiber-optic superhighway? After all, lots of remote communities don’t even have cable yet!

Yep, there’s that tyranny of distance, the digital divide! In figuring out what form of technology to embrace and at what standard, the Federal Government has the chance to right pre-existing wrongs and bring greater broadband capability to millions of currently under served communities. Ah, but those would be the ones furthest away, right? The ones most expensive to serve? The ones with declining population levels? Maybe better broadband can convince the kids to stay on the farm and in the surrounding community!

Those far-out-there communities present another problem. There ain’t much government out those parts (and I think they kinda like it that way). So, who is going to supervise and maintain the broadband infrastructure once it is built? Are we going to give it to likes of Quest and/or Verizon and/or Comcast to manage? Shock! Horror! Those companies have some of the very worst records of customer service and some very interesting business models. Pay-per-view internet, anyone? Or, maybe you like mandatory bundling of services like the cable companies currently favor. Of course, my concerns mirror many of the current controversies swirling around the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Maybe the government could own the Information Superhighway, much like we once owned most of the interstates in this country. Long-standing geeks will tell you that the internet was once primarily a military and scientific network. And back them we wouldn’t have dreamed of privatizing those things (I guess we hadn’t heard of Blackwater or Halliburton back then).

So, I’ll be watching the next big economic stimulus package with interest. Who will the Obama administration pick as favorites? Who’ll get picked first? And, who’s going to miss out? I hope it’s not me!

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