Broadband: bringing home the bits commitee on broadband last mile technology, computer science and telecommunications board, national research council. National academy press. Washington dc, 2002
Broadband is a means to multiple, diverse ends encompassing family, work, and society generally. In addition to enabling entertainment and e-commerce applications, broadband can enrich the Internet's exploitation as a public space, making electronic government, education, and health care applications richer and more compelling and useful, and it can provide new modalities for communication, notably within communities or families. Broadband commands attention because it enables dramatically different patterns of use that offer the potential for significant changes in lifestyle and business.
This report from the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board's Committee on Broadband Last Mile Technology examines the technologies, policies, and strategies associated with broadband local access connectivity (often referred to as the "first mile" or "last mile" problem, depending on one's perspective) and makes recommendations aimed at fostering its deployment. The committee's findings and recommendations are confined to broadband in the United States and focus largely on broadband for residences (with some discussion of broadband for small businesses and broader connectivity issues for communities).
Broadband service to the home depends on high-speed data transmission across local access facilities-the communications links and related hardware that connect the premises and the rest of a telecommunications network, most notably between the home or small business and the set of interlinked data networks that make up the Internet. These facilities fall into two categories: (1) existing facilities built by an incumbent telephone or cable company for the purpose of delivering voice or cable TV service and (2) new facilities-such as fiber optic cable, wireless, or satellite-constructed specifically for the purpose of delivering broadband. Before broadband, dial-up connections over the public telephone network were the dominant way in which homes were connected to the Internet or other online services. The performance of these modem connections has reached a plateau defined by the bandwidth of telephone circuit switches (more than 50 kilobits per second [kbps] under optimal conditions, but possibly less depending on factors such as line, interior wiring, and modem quality), and further improvements have required new technology approaches.
At present, two access technologies that leverage existing infrastructure-digital subscriber line (DSL) and hybrid fiber coax (HFC; or cable modem)-are maturing, as evidenced by wide availability, industry standards, multiple product vendors, volume pricing, and deployment experience; others-such as terrestrial wireless and fiber-to-the-home (FTTH)-are being developed and deployed on a smaller scale. The range of technology options captures part of what makes broadband vexing-fiber promises maximum bandwidth; wireless offers pervasiveness, flexibility, and potentially faster deployment; and satellite offers nationwide coverage (albeit with some gaps and limited total capacity). Today, DSL and HFC are most prominent, shape consumer experience, and fuel much of the politics that surrounds broadband. Looking forward, as other technologies such as fiber and wireless surmount cost and other deployment barriers and become more pervasive in residential broadband, providers, consumers, and policy makers alike will face new issues.
The committee's work started in late 1999 and was completed in fall 2001, a period encompassing significant broadband deployment and both boom and bust in the telecommunications and Internet markets. Until recently, only universities and large businesses and organizations had high-speed Internet access, reflecting a favorable economic return on investment in providing service to these customers. In contrast, residences and small businesses (and smaller offices of larger organizations) have been less likely to attract investment. Also, many homes are relatively distant from neighboring homes or are connected today by hard-to-upgrade telecommunications infrastructure, and some are in remote locations-all factors that entail higher per-premises costs and inhibit deployment.
Following roughly a decade of development and experimentation, residential (and small business) broadband services have been available in selected markets for several years and more recently have become mass-market. Cable operators, incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs), and competitive local exchange carriers offering data services (data CLECs) have been the largest players, complemented by overbuilders (using HFC, wireless, or fiber) and satellite-based providers. The past couple of years have been a period of dramatic growth in broadband deployment-by summer 2001, more than 8 percent of U.S. households were subscribers to broadband service (only a comparative handful had service in 1999). Mid-2001 data also indicate that broadband-capable cable systems reach roughly 60 million households and that a substantial fraction of telephone company central offices support DSL (DSL availability for individual customers is subject to line-to-line variability). At the same time, many communities, especially smaller or more remote ones, lack broadband today, and some households in communities with general availability cannot obtain service owing to particular conditions (e.g., telephone line condition or length, or residence in a multidwelling unit without broadband).
The study period has also been marked by deployment difficulties. There have been numerous reports of poor customer service in terms of both installation delays and poor operational reliability, with charges and countercharges as to whether the data CLECs or incumbents were responsible for reported difficulties and delays in establishing DSL service. The 2001 wave of CLEC bankruptcies and shutdowns called into question the unbundling strategy contemplated in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
If the committee had completed its work in mid-2000, it might well have done so with a rosier assessment of prospects for investment, the strength of broadband overbuilders and competitive local exchange carriers, and so forth. In formulating its recommendations, the committee was mindful of how much the situation had changed just during the course of its work and of how these changes underscore the perils of basing policy on short-term trends (either positive or negative).
Broadband deployment has been the subject of scrutiny by legislators, regulators, communities, the computing industry, and the public at large, and a number of potential barriers have been noted by these groups. Political attention has escalated along with that devoted to the Internet; like the Internet, broadband is linked to social and economic benefits. With sustained improvements in the Internet's core and in network connectivity within many businesses and other organizations, the last mile to residences and small enterprises has come to be viewed by some as a critical bottleneck. Key questions include these:
- What is broadband?
- Why do people need it?
- How much demand is there for broadband?
- How important and urgent is deployment of broadband?
- What is the likely shape of broadband deployment in the coming years?
- Is the pace of deployment reasonable and adequate, or are there failures that necessitate intervention?
- How will broadband deployment be paid for?
- How might the present policy regime for broadband be made more effective?
The multifaceted and dynamic future anticipated by the committee in the findings and recommendations below will be troublesome to regulators and policy makers. This future implies that different forms of intervention will be required in different geographical regions; that intervention should change over time as players enter and leave the market and as the working definition of broadband changes (which could change the number of real options); and that problems will arise, given the typical slow pace of the policy-making process. Finally, the ebb and flow of competition will inevitably lead to claims and recriminations of predatory pricing, obstructionist incumbents, partial regulation, and so on. The remainder of this summary presents the committee's key findings and recommendations with respect to these vexing questions.
While implementing some of the committee's recommendations would require changes to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, many would not. Viewing the act's provisions as only one of a number of factors shaping broadband deployment, the committee believes that revision of the act or associated regulation is not critical at present, but that changes in light of the realities of broadband will become increasingly important over time. At the same time, the committee has not shied away from making recommendations simply because they would be inconsistent with the provisions of the present act. Further, the committee anticipates that in view of the public spotlight enjoyed by broadband, there will be multiple efforts to change the act itself as well as to undertake more evolutionary changes within the act's framework. Rather than comment on the merits of any particular pending legislation (the committee is explicitly not doing this), the committee offers its recommendations as guidelines, as broadband policy evolves over the next several years.
Broadband is a convergent capable of supporting a multiple of applications and services
Although the term "broadband" can be used to refer to other services, such as digital television, that are not necessarily carried using Internet technology, the main focus of this report-and the issue of most interest to service providers, consumers, and policy makers alike-is...