NCTA's Michael Powell on Broadband Subsidies: Spend Smart

With potentially as much as $120 billion in new broadband spending either in the pipeline or contemplated by Congress, the result could be "a golden age of broadband investment, or a costly sinkhole that squanders billions and does little to close actual broadband gaps."

That is according to Michael Powell, president of NCTA-The Internet & Television Association and former chairman of the FCC, which will be handing out a lot of that money. He is particularly concerned with the legislative proposals that would define existing service as only where there is 100 Mbps download and upload speeds.

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In a blog post, Powell suggests the squandering could come if Congress does not focus on where there is no broadband at all. Powell said he welcomed the funding effort and recognized that COVID-19 had "amplified" the importance of broadband, but that broadband "have-nots" need to be the priority for all that money.

With Democrats in the majority, allowing municipal networks to overbuild commercial ones, and subsidized providers to overbuild existing plant, and including speed, and perhaps price, in the definition of areas defined as served by broadband, are definitely on the table, something Powell clearly knows.

Powell also put on the problematic side of the ledger setting "aspirational" technical standards--making money contingent on symmetrical 100 Mbps download and upload speeds, for example--rather than rewarding "network investment that offers a logical path to continuous improvement over time and not networks that meet any given standard at a snapshot in time."

The problem with defining unserved as areas without 100 Mbps down/up is that a third of the country is automatically unserved and limited resources go to upgrading existing service to meet the new standard, which is cheaper than building it out to truly unserved areas. "The goal of funding should be to close the gap—not to subsidize areas where broadband connectivity is robust and routinely upgraded to keep ahead of evolving consumer usage and demand," he said. 

He also said on the golden side of the funding future would be to allow engineers, not regulators, to build networks. "Technical neutrality is not just about letting every type of industry compete for public dollars—though that is a virtue. It is about allowing network engineers to develop and design the optimal network for a particular geography," he said, with engineers making the decisions, not regulators, lawyers or lobbyists.

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"Getting broadband infrastructure to unserved areas in this country has been a tough and perennial problem. Perhaps more than any time in the past, America is on track to solving the vexing challenges of bringing broadband service to communities that have been waiting," Powell wrote. "But it will take more than money to succeed. We also need to make wise policy choices that will advance our primary goal rather than retard it." 

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.