March 16, 2010 By Bill Schrier
So the FCC has published its national broadband plan. This plan has many implications for cities and counties and local government. It has implications for public safety and general government, for consumers, for business, for wired and wireless networks.
Here's my take on it:
Q: Is this plan really radical or different?
A: The FCC has charted a brave new vision for the United States with this plan. For example, in this plan the FCC has set a goal of "one hundred squared", that is, connecting 100 million households with 100 megabits per second. This is radical because it cannot be accomplished with existing copper wire networks such as the telephone networks or cable TV networks. Such speeds require fiber optic cable to every home and business, a radical change. The speeds copper can carry are quite limited. But fiber cable lightwave signals theoretically, have no upper limit on speed. Incidentally, there are about 114 million households in the U.S.
Q: A 100 megabits per second - a 100 million bits per second - is "geekspeak" . What does it really mean for consumers at home or small business?
A: Let me give you one specific example. Many homes and businesses are buying and installing flat screen TVs, and most of those are HDTV - high definition. That's cool, and the quality of the image is very detailed. But the signal is one way - you "watch the TV" - you don't really "interact" with it or use it for communications like you use a phone. At the same time, you can buy a video camcorder - even a cheap one like a Flip phone - that takes HDTV video. Now, let's suppose you could put the video camcorder next to the HDTV and connect them - all of a sudden you would have a video telephone or a video conferencing setup. You could make video phone calls. You could attend meetings with video. You could attend class at a high school or community college or a university, and actually interact with the teacher or professor - ask questions and participate. You could visit your doctor to talk about a health problem, or work from home. You could visit your local appliance store or clothing store and talk to the owner and have the owner demonstrate what you want to buy. You could play really cool interactive video games. And think of the implications for quality of life - with this sort of video, grandparents could have dinner with their kids and grandchildren every night via a video phone. They could see their grandchildren from hundreds or thousands of miles away, or from an assisted living or nursing home. But all of this requires super fast networks for both high quality and almost zero latency - no delay, just like the voice phone network. And this requires fiber with 100 million bits per second or more. To each home or business.
Q: What are the implications for large cities like Seattle?
A: Seattle has been a leader in thinking about these networks. We've already installed fiber cable connecting every public school, all our college campuses, every fire station, police precinct and every major government building. We have done extensive planning for a fiber optic cable network to every one of the 300,000 homes and businesses in Seattle. We are a high tech community and we value education. We need such a fiber network for jobs, education and quality of life. Mayor Michael McGinn is very committed to the idea, and a number of departments are working together on a business plan to make it happen. The visionary goals set by the FCC's broadband plan - 100 million bits per second to 100 million homes - validate that we're following the right path, and we need to move rapidly to stay ahead of other cities in the United States and around the world.
Q: How can we learn more about this Seattle plan?
A: To stay abreast of it or support it, go to http://www.seattle.gov/broadband .
Q: What are the implications of the FCC plan for suburban and rural communities?
A: Suburban communities can be wired with fiber, just like the FCC's plan envisions and Seattle intends to do. Some Seattle area communities such as Kirkland and Woodinville already have fiber networks installed by Verizon. In rural communities installing fiber to farms and small towns may not always make economic sense, although in some visionary places like Chelan County, the local PUD is doing it anyway. But the FCC has envisioned an alternative for rural communities - high speed wireless broadband. Today's wireless networks are usually called "3G" or 3rd Generation. Fourth Generation - 4G - wireless networks will be available in a few places by the end of 2010. These faster networks require a lot of spectrum. You may recall that, in June, 2009, all TV broadcast signals became digital - every TV in the nation had to have a wired cable connection or a digital antenna. The FCC mandated this digital transition to take spectrum away from UHF TV use and give it to telecommunications companies to build 3G and 4G networks. The FCC's broadband plan calls for adding another 500 megahertz of spectrum to be dedicated to new, faster, wireless networks. The FCC will try to convince TV broadcasters to give up even more of the 300 MHz of spectrum now used for TV. And the government itself controls another 600 MHz of spectrum, some of which could be used for wireless broadband.
Q: The nation faces a number of threats - terrorism, disasters (like earthquakes and hurricanes like Katrina) and even local disasters like the shooting of four Lakewood, Washington, police officers in 2009. Will the FCC's national broadband plan help with this problem?
A: Public safety communications were problematical on September 11th in New York City, in the Katrina Hurricane and in other disasters. The public cell phone networks won't reliably operate in such disasters or, sometimes, even in daily emergencies like power outages. The FCC has allocated 10 Mhz of spectrum in the 700 Mhz band for a nationwide public safety broadband network. In the national broadband plan, the FCC proposes putting money where its mouth has been - the FCC is proposing $6.5 billion in grants to create the public safety network. The City of Seattle is one of only 17 communities nationwide who have asked the FCC for permission to use this spectrum and build such a network. In their plan, the FCC includes a method for setting standards and operating procedures which will allow cities like Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Boston to build. And these municipal or regional public safety wireless broadband networks will interoperate with others nationwide. In fact, under the FCC's plan, the public safety networks will also interoperate with networks being constructed by AT&T and Verizon and T-Mobile. So if a police officer or firefighter can't get a strong signal from the public safety network the officer could get signals from a commercial network instead.
Furthermore, Seattle has proposed that other government agencies - our electric utility, Seattle City Light, our water utility, Seattle Public Utilities, our transportation department, and others, also be allowed to use this network. In both daily emergencies and major disasters such "second responders" are vital to public safety and must interoperate with police and fire to keep the public safe. The national broadband plan recognizes this need as well.
Q: Practically, why do we need a public safety wireless broadband network?
A: I'll give one specific example - video. On October 31, 2009, a Seattle police officer was brutally murdered by an unknown assailant - Christopher Montfort was ultimately charged with the crime. How did the police find Montfort? I've discussed this in more detail in this blog entry, but essentially, every Seattle police patrol vehicle has a video camera which records video of traffic stops. The recording goes to a computer in the police vehicle. It took several days for the police to review all the video footage of traffic stops from Seattle police cars. They noticed, in the background of several such stops, a uniquely shaped vehicle cruising by, which was traced back to Montfort. With a wireless broadband network, such video could immediately, in real time, be transmitted to dispatch centers and other police officers. Furthermore, police and firefighters could receive mugshots, building plans, hazardous material data, and video from a variety of sources to improve their response to both daily incidents and larger disasters.
Q: Are there other implications of the plan?
A: Several are worth mentioning and there is a bit more detail in an analysis here.
In summary, the FCC's plan is visionary. Certainly it was carefully crafted with many competing interests interests in mind. And it doesn't really provide any good mechanism to encourage competition between private providers. Such competition would reduce costs to users. Nevertheless, if it is followed, will materially improve the economy, safety, and quality of life for the people of the United States.