This is the first in a series of blog posts outlining an approach to expanding high-speed Internet connectivity that I refer to as FAST PIIPs (Fiber and Spectrum Together for Public Interest IP Services). The FAST PIIPS model reflects the evolution of my thinking about how to bridge remaining gaps in broadband access and adoption, including a 2016 collaboration with Michigan State University’s Quello Center on a report entitled Wireless Innovation for Last Mile Access: An Analysis of Cases and Business Strategies and a policy brief entitled Bridging Michigan’s Social and Digital Divides.
While the FAST PIIPS model can be applied to both rural and urban connectivity challenges, my focus in these posts will be on rural areas, where the challenges tend to be more widespread and severe, and where the new FCC chairman and his critics seem to share a sense of urgency, if not a strategy for how best to address it. My hope is that this overview of the FAST PIIPS model will contribute in some small way to development of public policies and network investment strategies that do a better job of digitally connecting and empowering the nation’s economically and socially stressed rural communities.
Though I’ll get into more detail in later posts, I want to start by briefly describing the two main components of the FAST PIIPS model. The first element, “FAST” (Fiber and Spectrum Together) relates to technology and can be read to mean “extend fiber as far as you can afford, then use it to provide high-capacity backhaul to support wireless connections to locations that can’t currently be reached cost-effectively by fiber.” While the determination of how far fiber can “affordably” be extended may vary considerably and be a subject of intense debate in specific situations, the basic network design principle is pretty straightforward and, I think, uncontroversial.
The second element of the model, “PIIPS” (Public Interest IP Services) may be a bit more controversial in that it is focused largely on the institutional arrangements and motivations related to deploying access and backhaul networks. As I wrote on pg. 4 of the Wireless Innovation for Last Mile Access report and will discuss more in later posts:
“Given the economic and other challenges associated with bridging our nation’s remaining gaps in broadband access and the benefits it provides, locally-anchored enterprises and business models focused on sustainably addressing local needs may be better suited to this task than enterprises and business models focused on maximizing investor returns in national or global markets.”
That report, commissioned by Merit Network and five other state Research and Education Networks (RENs), examined a dozen examples of wireless innovation in last mile access. As the paragraph cited above went on to note, “virtually all of the cases examined in th[e] report embod[ied] some institutional and business case elements reflecting this prioritization of community benefits versus shareholder returns,” with the range of institutions involved in these innovative projects including public libraries, universities, K-12 school districts, local governments, cooperatives, community nonprofits and privately owned “social enterprises.”
To close out this introductory post I’ll note that the FAST PIIPS model includes technology-related (i.e., FAST) elements that are especially supportive of the PIIPS component’s focus on directly targeting the public interest goal of expanding access versus pursuing it through private market dynamics. Chief among these are the use of: 1) low-cost unlicensed and education-focused spectrum not allocated via competitive auctions and; 2) open access fiber backhaul networks operated by mainly nonprofit entities and deployed with financial support from the federal government, as occurred under the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) funded by the American Revitalization and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a topic I discussed in this series of posts on the Quello Center blog.
Below are links to the other posts in this series. Feedback from readers, especially constructive criticism, is welcome.