Connected Nation's $134 Billion Fish Tale?

Posted on February 23, 2008 - 11:18am.

from: Broadband Reports

Connected Nation's $134 Billion Fish Tale?
Editorial: Lets make sure we adopt the RIGHT national broadband policy....
12:00PM Friday Feb 22 2008 by Karl

Last month Public Knowledge penned a piece that suggested that Connected Nation, a group supposedly created to push a national broadband policy, was actually now essentially a baby bell lobbying effort. The allegation was that what started as a real, local Kentucky effort to map U.S. broadband penetration, has ultimately been hijacked by baby bell lobbyists, and now exists primarily as a way to protect those companies' interests under the guise of a national broadband deployment model. If true, it's absolutely ingenious in a robustly amoral way.

But the group's CEO, Brian R. Mefford, insists that those allegations aren't true. In a letter responding to Public Knowledge's criticisms, Mefford denied any influence from AT&T, and proclaimed that "There are far more individuals who would rather criticize than there are individuals who are willing to become change agents and risk failure."

This week finds Connected Nation getting ample press for a new study by the group that claims a national broadband policy (which most of us can agree we lack completely) could help boost the U.S. economy to the tune of $137 billion.

According to the group, just a 7% spike in broadband adoption would save $6.4 billion in vehicle mileage, and $662 million in health-care costs ($217 per person). The 2.4 million jobs created to fuel this spike in adoption would result in a $92 billion surge. The group also insists that this 7% spike in adoption would result in $18 million in carbon credits associated with 3.2 billion fewer pounds of CO2 emissions per year.

Sounds wonderful! What do we need to do?

The group wants each State to adopt (and pay for) their "Connect Kentucky" model, which they claim resulted in Kentucky broadband adoption growing 83% from 2005 to 2007, while the national broadband adoption rate grew only 57%.

Of course given that Kentucky consistently ranked near the bottom of most penetration rankings, even a slight improvement in penetration would make it appear they were doing something a more wired state like say, California, wasn't.

The Connect Kentucky model consisted of using $7 million in state funds to map penetration, then using local outreach to push private service into under-served areas. But if Art Brodsky's report is to be believed, the group's mapping efforts use rose colored glasses, and the outreach program is little more than a sales call for small scale AT&T DSL deployments, or if DSL is not financially viable, AT&T-resold Wild Blue satellite service:

The second major piece of Connect’s program is its formation of “leadership teams” to go to each of Kentucky’s 120 counties to preach the word of the necessity of broadband. Sources who have been in those meetings aren’t impressed with Connect’s expertise. One Kentucky source said a Connect community session he attended “reminded me of an Amway meeting,” comparing it to the direct-sales company. Connect gathers together people from health care, education, industry and local government to persuade them that broadband is needed in their community. The preferred provider is not an independent ISP or a local CLEC. Instead, the service being pitched is BellSouth DSL. Think of the presentation as a state-sponsored sales call for AT&T (the former BellSouth) low-speed DSL.

In addition to having to pay a $20,000 entry fee to join Connected Kentucky's group of preferred providers, local ISPs say they're given virtually no help from, and in some cases found their existing relationships harmed by, Connect Kentucky:

Although purportedly striving to bring broadband, as opposed to BellSouth broadband, to unserved areas, Connect hasn’t provided much help to other companies, and in some cases has been downright hostile by bringing in would-be competitors when a local ISP has already started talking with local officials. It has assisted in setting up some meetings and providing minimal guidance to Federal grants, one source said. But many other promises went unfulfilled, from help in negotiating discounted rates on cell towers to assistance in obtaining permission for siting competitive wireless sites on tall structures, to funding for smaller companies. The results of the “leadership team” meetings are more often than not simply a “pretty, glossy document,” with no follow up, one meeting participant said.

The problem is we haven't seen substantive, independent confirmation of any of Connected Kentucky or Connected Nation's claims. Leichtman Research says that Kenutcky is 46th out of all U.S. States in broadband penetration. The FCC's data on broadband penetration, as we've stated repeatedly, is not reliable.

After studying telecom-related propaganda for the better part of the last decade, the bubbly, plasticine enthusiasm that surrounds Connected Nation gives me slight pause. As does the rabid support for their program coming from groups like the Alliance for Public Technology, a PR group tied to both AT&T And Verizon, as well as Verizon's public relations magicians at Issue Dynamics.

If Connected Nation is a for-profit incumbent lobbying and sales vehicle dressed up as a national broadband policy, it would be one of the most ingenious business ploys in the history of telecom. It would kill multiple birds with with stone by preventing more progressive and substantive policy changes from taking root, funneling state funds away from local providers and into the hands of incumbents, and allowing the nation's largest carriers to game penetration statistics to mask half-hearted rural broadband deployment.

All on the taxpayer's dime.

It's absolutely true that the country needs some kind of national broadband policy, and perhaps the group genuinely does have the welfare of the typical American consumer at heart. However, one can't read the recent criticisms of Connected Nation without at least thinking that much deeper investigation is warranted. Let's proceed with healthy skepticism before embracing Connected Nation's specific vision, or fielding their claims on faith.