I rushed out my post on this event at Google’s DC office and missed a few notes on the question of broadband access here in the US.
The first question or idea is around reform of the Universal Service Fund. The fund was introduced in the wake of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to meet the lofty goal of helping to ensure access to high technology communications services. Sadly those services were all defined largely as ones exclusive to the realm of telephony. There has been no discussion since to extend the fund’s mandate into the realm of broadband and the internet. I’ve since seen discussion of USF reform pop up elsewhere in the context of the new administration. It only makes sense since access to the internet also helps achieve the goals of health, education and public safety laid out by the USF’s definition.
In the context of rural access, specifically, I forgot to mention a couple of the panelists suggesting we consider the rural electrification undertaken by the FDR administration. It is not a perfect model for broadband but there may be some critical lessons about how to approach such a challenge.
The other point I forgot to discuss that I found fascinating was one I believe Ben Scott of Free Press brought up. He warned of a reverse network effect when increasing broadband access. He mentioned a joint CMU and USC study (that I haven’t been able to locate) that suggested as broadband approaches saturation, the drawbacks of not having access get worse than when there is less access generally. I suppose this makes sense, as a corollary to how much more useful broadband becomes with nearly everyone connected. There wasn’t much constructive discussion about how to offset this effect, it may be a cost we’ll just have to live with assuming the benefit on the other side clearly outweighs it.