Let's Balance Broadband
Seth G. Fearey, President, Connected
The communications technology companies
are riding the wrong horse in the broadband deployment race. They keep
pushing the government to spend more money on faster and faster
infrastructure when we don't have enough compelling applications to get
people interested in what is already available. If our policy makers in
Washington are serious about developing our broadband infrastructure they
need to invest more in applications -- the real value in being connected.
When he chaired Smart Valley Inc., a
non-profit dedicated to helping Silicon Valley get connected, John Young,
former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, always emphasized that connecting Silicon
Valley was about delivering value. Smart Valley also realized that it was
local content and services that were the most valuable. Getting a book
from Amazon is great, but exchanging messages with your children's
teachers, your doctors, and city hall are a lot better.
Smart Valley promoted local e-commerce,
tele-work, and tele-medicine. It invested in teacher training, created a
location-smart guide to local government services in Silicon Valley, and
developed a comprehensive information resource for voters. Today Silicon
Valley is one of the best connected regions in the world. The people and
businesses of Silicon Valley use connectivity to compete effectively in
the global information age economy and to enhance the region's quality of
Connected Communities, my consulting
practice, helps communities evaluate their communications infrastructure
and their ability to put it to constructive use. Our largest client is the
3.3 million residents of California's agricultural center, the San Joaquin
Valley. The state-funded San Joaquin Valley ACCESS program has helped nine
counties conduct assessments. The picture that emerged is consistent with
what the Federal Communications Commission and others are finding across
the United States: the communications infrastructure is much better than
people realize, and it is not being put to use.
The biggest holdouts are local
governments and small businesses. The majority of the Valley's 58 local
governments have websites, but just a handful accept credit card payments
for permits or licenses. Very few small businesses have websites, and even
when they do, they are not accepting credit cards or handling other forms
of e-commerce transactions.
The $40-$50 per month cost of broadband
is clearly a barrier. We can overcome that barrier by delivering $40-$50 a
month in value. The local newspaper, stuffed with advertising, costs about
$15/month. Cable television costs about $40/month. These services are
delivering value; broadband can too.
Steve Peters of Tucson, Arizona's
Community Information and Telecommunications Alliance has identified three
categories of people who are not connected:
* The have nots.
* The can nots.
* The will nots.
To get connected, the have nots need
computers and money for services, the can nots need access to
communications services, and the will nots need a convincing reason to
take the first step. The FCC and others find that 70%-80% of homes can get
broadband access, but only 10% have signed up. We need to address the
needs and concerns of the will nots to make progress.
What can Washington do to convince the
will nots to give broadband a try? Here
are some suggestions:
* Encourage tele-work programs. Parks
Associates found that 80% of broadband households have at least one
* Help local governments put
transactions like building permits on-line. High up-front costs are
holding many smaller cities back.
* Help healthcare providers pilot tele-medicine.
Encourage insurers to convert to digital records and reimburse doctors
for remote consultations.
* Help school districts send teachers
to professional development courses on effectively incorporating
technology in education.
* Provide support for community
portals - one site with links to everything you need to know about your
* Provide subsidies for small
businesses to encourage them to take classes in e-commerce. Back up the
program with a marketing campaign.
* Create an emergency alert service on
the Internet that takes advantage of always-on connectivity.
* Support the deployment of web cams
that provide information on traffic and emergency conditions.
Communications companies can not be
expected to continue deploying faster networks in the face of weak demand.
The communications technology companies want the government to reduce
regulation and provide more subsidies and incentives. Such policies should
be balanced by policies that help local content creators develop
compelling applications that deliver real value.
Seth Fearey is the President of
Connected Communities in Menlo Park, California. He spent 20 years with
Hewlett-Packard and served as a member of Smart Valley Inc's board of
directors through its five year life.