FCC Chairman Issues Gigabit City Challenge

By Peter Bernstein January 22, 2013

The history of economic growth has been characterized by the establishment and interconnection of hubs. This has been true in all aspects of transportation (rail, air and vehicular) as well as communications. In recognition of the importance of hubs to long-term prosperity and competitive economic advantage, particularly in a world where high-speed interconnection of communications is vital and only growing more so with each passing day, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski recently addressed the U.S. Conference of Mayors Winter Meeting in Washington, D.C., and issued what the FCC is calling, “The Gigabit Challenge.”

The goal may seem aspirational, but it also can and should be doable— putting at least one gigabit community (an ultra-high speed that is roughly 100 times faster than the typical top end of the Internet today in most places) in all 50 states by 2015, and hopefully a lot more, as critical hubs. 

The chairman certainly knows how to create a stir.

Getting from here to there

As the chairman told the mayors, “American economic history teaches a clear lesson about infrastructure. If we build it, innovation will come. The U.S. needs a critical mass of gigabit communities nationwide so that innovators can develop next-generation applications and services that will drive economic growth and global competitiveness.” The goal is lofty in that the end-game here is to make sure that “networks cease to be hurdles” to applications availability.

The context for this was laid forth by Genachowski when he cited the fact that today, approximately 42 communities in 14 states are served by ultra-high-speed fiber Internet providers, according to the Fiber to the Home Council. Hence, the challenge is getting from here to there.

What the chairman proposed to accelerate the development of such hubs was the following: he wants to create a new online clearinghouse of best practices to collect and disseminate information about how to lower the costs and increase the speed of broadband deployment nationwide, including to create gigabit communities. He proposed working jointly with the U.S. Conference of Mayors on the best-practices clearinghouse effort. He also took the occasion to announce that the FCC will hold workshops on gigabit communities. These will convene leaders from the gigabit community ecosystem—including broadband providers, and state and municipal leaders— to evaluate barriers, increase incentives and lower the costs of speeding gigabit network deployment.

Together, the workshops will inform the FCC’s clearinghouse of ways industry, and local and state leaders can meet the challenge to establish gigabit communities nationwide.

As is his custom when making such announcements, Genacowski’s speech used some examples to highlight the impact going Gig can have. Included were:

  • Chattanooga, Tennessee, where a a local utility deployed a fiber network to 170,000 homes. Thanks to the city’s investment in broadband infrastructure, companies like Volkswagen and Amazon have created more than 3,700 new jobs over the past three years in Chattanooga.
  • Kansas City, where the Google Fiber initiative is bringing gigabit service to residential consumers, attracting new entrepreneurs and startups to the community.
  • The Gig.U initiative, which has already catalyzed $200 million in private investment to build ultra-high-speed hubs in the communities of many leading research universities, including a recent joint venture with the University of Washington and a private ISP to deliver gigabit service to a dozen area neighborhoods in Seattle.

This is just the latest in various tools the FCC is employing to accelerate not just broadband ubiquity in the U.S., but next-generation broadband. As the FCC noted in its comments on the initiative, “The Gigabit City Challenge is designed to drive a critical mass of gigabit communities like these,creating new markets for 21st century services, promoting competition, spurring innovation, and driving economic growth nationwide.” And, it is all part of the FCC’s Broadband Acceleration Initiative, which already is looking at ways to expand the reach of robust, affordable broadband by streamlining access to utility poles and rights of way, and improving policies for wireless facilities siting and other infrastructure.

In fact, it was also noted that Gigabit communities will benefit from tens of thousands of miles of critical “middle mile” fiber infrastructure funded throughout the country by the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program run by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration along with the FCC’s Connect America Fund, which is the largest ever public investment in rural broadband and includes funding for high-speed broadband to anchor institutions like schools and hospitals.While the chairman did not get into the weeds on how cities raise the capital needed for such projects, since in this era of austerity public funding may not be an option and creative new public-private partnerships between the mayors and their service providers are going to be needed, such as has been the focus of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in what appears to be the notion of a little friendly competition. The anecdotes were nice fuel to spark the interest of the audience. Investment in infrastructure is obviously a cornerstone for economic growth, but which infrastructure, where, why, why and how is always the question. 

Chairman Genachowski, if nothing else, gave a great pitch that the gig worth playing is Gigabit networking. The numbers tend to prove him right, and who bites and how is going to be interesting, especially as what works becomes readily available to those without the resources to pilot things initially themselves. As noted at the top, this may be aspirational but reality is that it is also necessary. 2015 is not far away. For those of us who live in the U.S., let’s hope the community can exceed expectations. 

As the teeth grinding in Europe over that region’s lack of accelerated investment in broadband has already exposed, this needs to be a priority of every level of policy making and throughout the ICT community. This is about regional economic sustainability. You have to give the chairman decent marks for challenging everyone to get with the gig.

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