My speech in SF

Sorry to go dark so long. I was on the West Coast pretty much all last week, then came home in time for the Jewish New Year. Lots of stuff to blog about and will try to do updates over the next week or so.

Last week, I was at the amzing and cool conference put together by Esme Vos of Esme is proof of why the Internet is such a wonderful tool. With nothing more than interest and dedication two years ago, she created the muniwireless website which is now a central news source and repository of information about municipal wifi.

I’ve attached below the speech I gave at the conference last week. It’s 6 pages, so it’s kinda long.

Stay tuned . . . .


Presented at the Conference September 29, 2005, San Francisco

Good morning. I’d like to join with everyone in thanking Esme for holding this conference and for the sponsors of this conference. I’ll note in passing that the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) is also having a major conference in San Francisco this week. This is usually the point at which a speaker makes a cheap joke about wireless “being in the air.” But I want to underscore how important and timely this issue is. The time to get active on wireless policy and muni broadband is NOW. If we wait, we will come to the party too late and all the good snacks will be gone.

Esme asked me to talk about the impact of the Brand X case on muni wireless. On the surface, that seems odd. Brand X addressed whether the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could deregulate cable broadband (and, by extension, DSL or other telephone broadband). The Supreme Court said it could. They upheld the FCC’s decision to deregulate cable, and the FCC did the same for telephone broadband two months later. What does this have to do with muni wireless?

Brand X has both an immediate impact and a valuable lesson for everyone here. First the impact: your broadband future is now in the hands of unregulated monopolies. These companies don’t care about your community and its needs. They want to maximize value to their stockholders. No criticism to them, that’s what they’re designed to do. But if these companies decide you aren’t worth serving, or aren’t worth serving well, you’re out of luck.

Imagine a business thinking of locating in your town. They ask “we’re going to need electric power, how do we get electric power to our new office campus.” You reply: “we don’t know. We don’t have a ‘power strategy.’ We’ve been trying to get the power company to come out and service us. They say they will probably be ready to build out to us when you finish building your campus, but we can’t make any promises.” Do you think that business will move to your town?

Suppose you have some developers looking to put in new housing for commuters and other folks looking to enhance their quality of life. The folks thinking of moving ask: “are we going to get clean water? What about garbage pick up? What about schools for our kids?” And you reply: “We don’t know. We don’t have a ‘clean water’ strategy or a garbage pick up plan or a school set up. We encourage private companies to provide those.” Do you think those people will move to your town? Heck, the folks already living there will probably move away.

That’s broadband for the 21st Century. Businesses need it, and only go where they can get it. That includes small businesses, not just large companies. Residents need it for education, for business, or because they’re hooked on it and can’t live without it. If they can’t get it, and they think their kids need it, they leave for some place that has it.

Every local government needs to have a plan. They need the freedom to make local plans that fit local circumstances. Whatever model you want to have — whether it’s a soup to nuts municipal network, public-private partnerships, working with local non-profit “community wireless networks,” or a continued effort to court purely private providers — you need a plan and the freedom to make a plan that’s right for you.

Why? Start with economic development. Esme here is a classic example of how someone smart with an idea and entrepreneurial spirit can use the internet to build a successful business. How many frustrated Esme’s do you have at home who could be building your communities if they had the right tools? How many architects can’t send their drawings to clients because dial up is too slow? How many restaurants or car dealers can’t use cheaper online ordering systems?

Now look at education. When kids show up in college or in the work force, they are expected to be familiar with the internet and how to use it. Colleges put assignments and grades on line. Homework includes online research. If your kids don’t have broadband, where will they learn this? How will they compete with those who have it?

Finally, there’s public safety. What municipalities are doing with wireless networks is amazing. Some are using it for traffic surveillance. Firefighters can use these networks to download building plans for buildings on fire. Police can get info on a perpetrator during a high speed chase. For networks that are cheap compared to what licensed radios cost, because you get economies of scale.

I also want to highlight what happened after Katrina and Rita. We have had an amazing response from wireless ISPs and community wireless volunteers. These nimble teams, using low cost technology, have rebuilt voice and data infrastructure in areas that would still be waiting for FEMA or the Bells or the cable cos. If I were a local government, I’d want to have some of this equipment around for a rainy day, if nothing else.

So that’s the impact of Brand X. What about the lesson of Brand X?

Brand X should send a warning to everyone here that you can’t ignore federal policy. The policy debate on deregulating cable broadband began in 1998. The FCC Order deregulating cable came out in 2002. By the time the Supreme Court made its decision in 2005, it was too late to have impact on the federal policy.

Muniwireless is very live today in federal policy. We have two questions playing out. Will local governments be able to do this at all? And where will the spectrum come from?

On the “can local governments do this at all,” we have four bills pending in Congress. The House has a stand alone bill introduced by Pete Sessions that would ban muni broadband networks. In the Senate, the draft rewrite of the Telecom Act introduced by Senator Ensign would prohibit any future muni networks. On the positive side of the ledger, we have a stand alone bill in the Senate introduced by Senators McCain and Lautenberg that prohibits states from banning local networks. The draft rewrite of the Telecom Act on the House side, introduced by Commerce Committee Chair Barton and Ranking Member Dingell, would prevent states from banning networks.

As you can see, things hang in the balance. We could have a federal law this year that undoes everything people in this room work for. Whether you’re a local government, a vendor, or whoever, you need to make your voice heard – NOW.

The other important question, where will the spectrum come from, is in front of both Congress and the FCC. I can only touch on this briefly, and encourage those interested to join the Birds of a Feather session on federal policy. First, Congress is considering legislation to force return of the analog TV spectrum as part of the transition to digital television. This presents a wonderful opportunity to free up very valuable spectrum in the TV bands for license exempt use. At the FCC, the Commission is looking at opening the “white spaces,” the unused TV channels in the TV bands. The FCC is also considering whether to allow “cognitive radios” that can sense their environment and jump into unused spectrum. These initiatives would open up capacity for wireless networks on a scale that dwarfs anything available today.

But convincing the FCC to take action will take work. Former FCC Chair Michael Powell – for all we at MAP disagreed with him on media ownership – really believed in the power of technology to expand license exempt access. But that free ride is over. Kevin Martin, the new FCC Chairman, has nothing against unlicensed spectrum. But he is not a believer.

He must be converted, and we are the people who have to evangelize him. Because he hears every day from the licensed incumbents, from the telcos and the cable cos that want to sell access for $50/month, how unlicensed has enough spectrum and no one wants to use it anyway and if the FCC changes the rules cell phones will stop working, TVs will get all snowy, planes will fall out of the sky, public safety radios won’t warn the 9/11 firemen in the Towers, and everyone will hate you forever.

How can you participate? After all, Washington is far away, the issues are complicated, and the other side has tons of money and lobbyists to fight this issue. What can you do to make a difference?

I have worked in public policy in DC for more than 6 years now. I can tell you, your input matters. If you have the amazing high-tech device called a “telephone” or a “fax machine,” you can call your elected representative or send them a fax. If you have a web connection and a browser, you can file a comment at the FCC And yes, it matters. I can say from experience that the ancient Chinese Emperors in the Forbidden City had more contact with the real world than the average FCC Commissioner or federal policy maker. Inside the Washington Beltway Bubble, you are swamped with hundreds of issues and too much information. You have to rely on what people tell you. And what the industry lobbyists keep saying is “everything is fine, no more unlicensed spectrum, keep out socialized broadband.” But once new voices come in to the FCC and the Hill, people start questioning the industry wisdom.

You don’t have to know the details or get into the technology. That’s one of the ways incumbents win. They make this seem so confusing and get people so bogged down in the details that decisionmakers just surrender. We have a simple message – more unlicensed spectrum. Let local governments serve their citizens. If you need anything else, talk to Harold Feld at MAP or Jim Baller at Baller Herbst and they’ll set you straight.

You can also participate through your trade organizations. I work with many organizations like the National League of Cities. They tell me they need to hear from their members on this issue. So tell them this is a priority and that they should work on this for you.

For vendors, you also need to get your trade associations in policy and reflecting your views. If you don’t have a trade association that will represent your views, create one. It is a sad truth that policymakers are always looking for someone who can represent “the industry.” They love trade associations. But you are a new industry, and many of the trade associations that might represent you are dominated by your commercial rivals or those who sell equipment to them. You need to make your own voices heard.

Finally, you should understand that you don’t fight this alone. We have allies in the tech industry. Consumer organizations and other public interest groups have become involved. As more people find out about this, more people become excited about the prospect of community broadband, and are willing to fight to protect it.

This is a very winnable fight. But we must show up to win. After developing such an innovative technology, it would be a shame to lose the policy fights by default. As communities and as a nation, we have too much at stake to give up because the fight looks to hard, too long, or too complicated. If there is one thing you take from this conference, take this: your voice matters, make it heard!

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