Schwarzenegger and Broadband: Is this leadership?

Arnold Schwarzenegger as ‘The Terminator’ – Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, London

No question that California has a lot at stake with respect to broadband (major Internet players like eBay, Google, and others are there), movie and (much of the) television industry, infrastructure companies (like Cisco) but then so does the United States overall. There seems to me to be a woeful lack of leadership when it comes to this economic catalyst both at the Federal and at the State level and Governor Schwarzenegger just demonstrated his lack of leadership on this matter.

At least the Governator has some level of awareness as he exhibited weakly at last Tuesday’s talk to a broadband conference, though according to this CNet article he’s a proponent of letting the free market take care of making broadband ubiquitous, affordable and faster.

Hmmm…let’s see: The Internet wouldn’t exist had it not been for the Defense Advanced Research Programs Agency (DARPA) creating it; the “free market” is traffic shaping on their networks dictating what can-and-cannot run on their networks; and US broadband speeds are laughingly slow compared to the rest of the world.

In the same way I don’t need a meteorologist to tell me the sun is shining, I don’t require someone to inform me as to why the US needs faster broadband speeds (both download and, most importantly, upload speeds so we can serve from our homes and businesses if we choose). If you, like me, use the Internet in any meaningful way you feel it and understand it down-to-your-toes.

The Sacramento Regional Research Institute, like a good meteorologist, looked at the concept strategically from several miles up and Schwarzenegger referenced the study in his talk:

An increase in California’s broadband Internet usage could lead to significantly higher levels of employment and payroll in the state, according to a new study by the Sacramento Regional Research Institute (SRRI). The Economic Effects of Increased Broadband Use in California shows that with a 3.8 annual percentage point increase in the proportion of the adult population using broadband, California could see a net cumulative gain of 1.8 million jobs and $132 billion of payroll over the next 10 years. (Study PDF press release here).

An earlier (Jan 2006) study (PDF) by MIT/Carnegie Mellon also reinforces the economic impact of broadband:

“We find that between 1998 and 2002, communities in which mass-market broadband became available by December 1999 experienced more rapid growth in (1) employment, (2) the number of businesses overall, and (3) businesses in IT-intensive sectors.”

So it’s not just me that sees the sun is shining, so where do we go from here?

Actual leadership would be nice. While I often dismiss much of what PBS tech columnist Robert X. Cringely pontificates and prognosticates about, this article on the political machinations and failures regarding US broadband policy is pretty clear as he concludes in this paragraph:

Misguided and incompetent regulation combined with utilities that found ways to game the system resulted in what had been the best communication system in the world becoming just so-so, though very profitable. We as consumers were consistently sold ideas that were impractical only to have those be replaced later by less-ambitious technologies that, in turn, were still under-delivered. Congress set mandates then provided little or no oversight. The FCC was (and probably still is) managed for the benefit of the companies and their lobbyists, not for you and me. And the upshot is that I could move to Japan and pay $14 per month for 100-megabit-per-second Internet service but I can’t do that here and will probably never be able to.

The operative words above are “though very profitable” which explains it from a Federal level: the Bush Administration has exhibited over and over again a failure in leadership by ensuring that status quo, incumbent corporations are assisted to the detriment of future growth, long-term investment in infrastructure, and innovation — and this explains our Federal telecommunication/Internet policy in one sentence.

My own governor in Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, has paid only leadership lip service to broadband as well since I’ve seen exactly ZERO movement in this area:

Minnesota is committed to encouraging the necessary investment to become a world leader in the universal deployment and use of high-speed next generation broadband,” Governor Pawlenty said.  “Broadband is as important to economic development today as electricity was at the turn of the 20th century – vital to our quality of life and essential for business, government and our communities.

That was released in February of 2006, 21 months ago for those of you counting. If it’s as “important as electricity was” then I’m going to go out and buy some candles and a 56k dial-up modem.

So what have I done about it? What agitates me are people who blog while pissing-n-moaning about why something isn’t happening. So in 2006 I was working with a Minnesota venture capitalist and we talked about ways to kick-start Minnesota with technology innovation and I mentioned our woefully inadequate broadband since he was a confidant of our governor. I’d hoped he’d mention it (since investment in broadband would certainly help a technology venture capitalist, don’t ya think?).

As luck would have it he was meeting with the governor the following week and asked me for a “one-pager” about my views on broadband which I couldn’t do: it was six pages and still hard to boil down to the essence of the argument. Not certain why, but he never presented it and we parted ways later on.

No question that this category of infrastructure is a complex and complicated issue (especially rural broadband and the enormity of US geography which makes comparing ourselves to Korea, Singapore or Tokyo a joke) but today we’re still in EXACTLY the same place in Minnesota: slow speeds and inadequate penetration which is mostly the story everywhere in the US.

Yes, I have decent broadband speeds here in the suburbs of Minneapolis/St. Paul (8mbps down and 768kbps up for $70 per month) but it’s not enough to do much now that huge file sizes and major interactions online are the new normal. I’m also a Comcast customer with NO ALTERNATIVES unless I’m willing to go sloooow by using DSL from Qwest (768kbps down and 384kbps up is all I can get which, in my and most technologists view, is NOT broadband!).

Even though I could, I’m not using online photo services since I have 40GB’s of digital photos which would take hours to upload so I just haven’t started. I’m also not uploading/storing my videos online since I have 60 hours worth and don’t even know how many GB’s! I’m not serving stuff from my home or business since I don’t want to crush my upload speeds since we use Skype, Vonage and need fast access ourselves which means others accessing any servers I’d deploy would suck up our laughingly slow upload speeds.

The silver lining and my prediction is that there will be a growing level of dissatisfaction by the participation culture of consumers and businesspeople — and the voices of the people will grow deafening — which will finally make our political leaders wake up.

Hey Governor’s Schwarzenegger and Pawlenty: the sun is shining so you could probably lead on this matter before the cacophony begins.

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2 Comments

  1. PXLated on December 3, 2007 at 11:44 am

    We don’t have (or elect) leaders or statesmen anymore, we have politicians, dynasties and celebrities only.
    It’s unfortunate.



  2. Christopher Mitchell on December 4, 2007 at 9:01 am

    Right on.

    Steve, I’m new to your blog (Google Alerts just pointed this post out to me) but I work in this arena and am located in the Twin Cities. I’m not sure what suburb you are located in, but some of the southern ‘burbs are working to solve their own problems in the absence of leadership from the State or Feds.

    Monticello is heading that way as well, though I think the southern suburbs will soon have some advantages as they are serious about open access and a competitive environment.

    I have written a case study on how Burlington, Vermont, solved their broadband problems by investing in a fiber to the home system. 4 years later, it is months away from being cash flow positive, but more importantly, it offers residents a CHOICE!

    If you are interested in strategizing for smart telecom investments in Minnesota, please contact me.



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