Interactions Between Political and Platform Systems

This post focuses on the interactions between digital platforms and public sector democratic governance systems. It is intended to help set the stage for two subsequent posts that offer suggestions about how to support positive feedback loops and discourage negative feedback loops in these interactions.

Though much of the foundations of our public governance systems (e.g., our Constitution and basic legal frameworks) have remained relatively stable over the years, many aspects of their operation have evolved.  A key driver of this evolution (or some might argue, devolution) is the interaction of these political governance systems with an ever-evolving mix of communication systems, starting with mail and print media, later adding radio, television and telephony and, most recently, Internet and mobile connectivity, which have enabled  communication tools such as e-mail, texting, social media, “sharing” platforms like Uber and Airbnb, and a dizzying array of apps and web-based content and services, all of which come with terms of service agreements that their users rarely read let alone understand.

Feedback loops reinforce strengths & weaknesses, benefits & harms

Whether one has taken the time to study the complexities of these interactions or simply observed with modest attentiveness the recent presidential campaign and its aftermath, it’s hard not to conclude that improvements are needed in the function of both our public sector institutions of governance and the privately-owned digital platforms we increasingly rely on in virtually every sphere of life. In addition, it seems clear that the dynamics and governance systems in each of these sectors can and often do influence the dynamics and outcomes of the other. This suggests that improvements in both sectors will be more likely to the extent we understand the nature of these interactions and, based on that understanding, adopt strategies that leverage positive synergies and minimize negative synergies in the interaction of these two sectors.

In terms of digital technology’s impact on political democracy, there is clear evidence of some positive benefits.  Facebook, for example, has been used effectively to improve voter turnout, and digital technology has helped grassroots-supported campaigns mobilize and manage fundraising, advocacy and volunteers. These and other developments have helped counterbalance the expanded influence wielded by wealthy donors following the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling. And, in countries with less developed democratic systems, there’s evidence, however mixed, that platforms like Facebook and Twitter can help citizens mobilize protest movements aimed at achieving democratic reforms.

On the other hand, there are increasing signs that digital technology can be used to distort and damage key democratic functions. Recent examples of this include: the revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data to micro-target brain stem-triggering political messages; evidence of Russia-backed efforts to use digital technology to clandestinely meddle in the 2016 presidential election and; research indicating that “fake news” tends to spread more quickly than fact-based news. And, in countries such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka, Facebook has been used to incite ethnic and religious violence.

As discussed in prior posts, a factor contributing to these problematic impacts is that the dominant digital platforms, while supporting a range of social benefits, employ business and ownership models biased in favor of prioritizing shareholder value over the needs and preferences of a broader range of stakeholders.

With their shareholders seeking growth and benefiting from share price appreciation, these platforms have evolved into algorithmically-enhanced information and communication platforms that: 1) capture and maintain user attention and personal data with unprecedented effectiveness; 2) use that attention and personal data to provide advertisers an equally unprecedented ability to micro-target manipulative messages and; 3) generate unprecedented levels of high-margin and fast-growing revenue, operational scale and market power. And, as we are now realizing more fully, this dynamic is yielding socially undesirable impacts that remain poorly understood and, for the most part, outside the scope of significant public oversight and control.

In considering whether and how the government sector can and should act to constrain harmful impacts associated with the platform sector, it is helpful to remember that: 1) positive and negative feedback loops flow in both directions between these two sectors; 2) the U.S. political system exhibits signs of deep and arguably growing dysfunction, reflected in, among other things; 3) a Congressional approval rating in the teens, reflecting how little the nation’s legislative body is trusted by the citizens it is supposed to represent.

Facebook’s role in the election as an example

A recent example of the two-way interaction between political institutions and digital platforms is the series of events leading up to the current crisis of confidence that at least temporarily hammered Facebook’s stock price and brought its CEO Mark Zuckerberg to Washington for two days of congressional testimony. Roughly speaking, the chronology of events and interactions went something like this:

  1. The prioritization of growth over privacy protection in Facebook’s internal governance apparently led to violations (in spirit and perhaps in letter) of privacy rules the company had agreed to in a 2011 FTC consent decree requiring it to protect user data.
  2. The weakness of the FTC as a federal oversight agency contributed to a prolonged failure to address these violations until, roughly seven years later, a whistleblower decided to speak out.
  3. This combination of weakness in both private and public governance systems led to the release of personal data on 87 million Facebook users to Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm that has been involved in several U.S. and overseas electoral campaigns, including Donald Trump’s unexpectedly successful presidential run in the U.S., where the electoral system has been flooded with dark money since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling.
  4. This, in turn, has led to growing public pressure on government officials to more intensively regulate Facebook and other digital platforms and to better protect the privacy of citizens and the health of the U.S. electoral process in the era of Citizens United, social media and big data.
  5. This increased pressure for regulation will very likely be countered by well funded lobbying efforts by platforms, ISPs and other big data-dependent corporations, in spite of the fact that many of the citizens who use these companies’ services and generate data that contributes to their market value are likely to support stronger privacy protections.
  6. Any movement toward legislation triggered by this mix of public pressure and industry pushback will occur in a highly polarized and poorly functioning Congress where winning political points and upcoming elections will likely be prioritized over thoughtful discussion of the complex issues and potential unintended consequences involved in regulating (or deciding not to regulate) the digital economy.

If we don’t fix government, can government help fix Facebook?

This last point raises the question of how well equipped our institutions of public governance are to design and manage laws and regulations that address current and potential future harms associated with digital platforms. While scholars, pundits and journalists have had much to say about this, this short video provides a short, simple yet strong case that the answer to this question is, unfortunately, “not well at all.”

The video, created by an organization called Represent.us, explains how the interests of economic elites and large businesses are reflected in decisions made by Congress while the preferences of the vast majority of citizens are not reflected in these decisions.

So what we face today is a combination of the following dynamics:

1) Digital platforms have aggregated an unprecedented level of market, financial, informational, analytical and manipulative power. While this power has had some beneficial impacts on democratic governance, it has also been harnessed by various interests, including the Russian government, to distort U.S. electoral systems in destructive and poorly understood ways. Unfortunately, the business models and history of these platforms (e.g., Facebook’s treatment of data privacy over the years) raise justifiable doubts about the extent to which they can reliably prioritize support for key features necessary for healthy democracy, including: an informed citizenry capable of and inclined to engage in critical thinking and civic participation; a robust and uncorrupted electoral process and; a governmental apparatus reflecting the will of the people.

2) Political governance systems face increased pressure to regulate dominant platform companies at a time when these public governance systems themselves are suffering deeply entrenched functional problems, extreme partisan polarization and historically low approval ratings.

3) The combination of #1 and #2 points to significant risks that the problems and negative synergies characterizing these two sectors will more than offset any benefits achieved via incremental efforts to address these problems.

As I’ll be explaining in the next two posts (see outline below), a direction I believe can support sustainably positive synergies between these two sectors is to simultaneously address key deficiencies in democracy within each of them.

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Below is an outline, with links, to all the posts in this series. Unless otherwise noted, bolding in quotations is mine, added for emphasis.

  • Expanding Democratic Governance in the Digital Anthropocene
    • The digital anthropocene: a pivotal & high-risk phase of human history
    • Empathy + technology: a powerful recipe for shared prosperity & peace
    • More (and more effective) democracy as part of the solution
    • The tech sector can help lead the next phase in democracy’s evolution
  • Democracy & Digital Platforms: A Match Made in Heaven or in Hell?
    • The Facebook F-up as a wake-up call
    • Where to look for solutions?
  • Serving Users (to Advertisers to Benefit Shareholders)
    • An IPO + mobile ads: 2012 as a turning point for Facebook
    • Too busy driving growth to focus on privacy?
    • Serving users or serving users to advertisers?
    • Understanding & addressing social harms
  • Data as Power: Approaches to Righting the Balance
    • Our data is tracked & locked in a “black box” we don’t control or understand
    • The EU tightens privacy protections amid mixed signals in the U.S.
    • Platforms as “information fiduciaries”
    • Reallocating power & benefits when users share their data
    • Shifting from an “Attention Economy” to a more efficient “Intention Economy”
    • Who owns and controls the data used to develop AI?
    • Data as labor that should be financially compensated
    • Data as an infrastructural public good
    • A “data tax” that generates a “data dividend” we all share
    • Data portability as means to enhance competition & consumer choice
  • The Power of Dominant Platforms: It’s Not Just About “Bigness”
    • New forms of concentrated power call for new remedies
    • Platforms wield transmission, gatekeeping & scoring power
    • Antitrust needs an updated framework to address platform power
    • Creating a civic infrastructure of checks & balances for the digital economy
  • Democracy & Corporate Governance: Challenging the Divine Right of Capital
    • A “generative” or “extractive” business model?
    • Dethroning kings & capital 
    • Moving beyond capitalism’s aristocratic form
    • Embracing economic democracy as a next-step Enlightenment
  • Platform Cooperativism: Acknowledging the Rights of “Produsers”
    • Reclaiming the Internet’s sharing & democratizing potential
    • Scaling a platform co-op: easier said than done
    • The #BuyTwitter campaign as a call for change
    • Encouraging the wisdom of crowds or the fears of mobs?
  • Interactions Between Political & Platform Systems
    • Feedback loops reinforce strengths & weaknesses, benefits & harms
    • Facebook’s role in the election as an example
    • If we don’t fix government, can government help fix Facebook?
  • A Purpose-Built Platform to Strengthen Democracy
    • Is Zuck’s lofty vision compatible with Facebook’s business model?
    • Designed to bolster democracy, not shareholder returns
  • Democratic Oversight of Platform Management by “Produsers”
    • Facebook, community and democracy
    • Is Facebook a community or a dictatorship?
    • Giving users a vote in Facebook’s governance
    • Technology can help users participate in FB governance
    • Evolving from corporate dictatorship toward digital democracy

 

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Posted in Communication Policy, Next Generation Internet, Political Reform, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Purpose-Built Platform to Strengthen Democracy

In brief, the argument presented in this post is that:

  1. The health and future prospects for political democracy are facing serious threats in the U.S. and the world.
  2. The history of Facebook, Google, Twitter and other online platforms and services have demonstrated that digital information and communication technologies (ICT) can support improvements in the function of our political democracy.
  3. However, this same history, especially recent revelations about their role in the 2016 election, and the fundamental nature of their business models, strongly suggest it would be unwise to rely on today’s dominant digital platforms to serve as the primary direct digital support structures for strengthening democracy.
  4. What’s needed is one or more digital platforms designed specifically to support healthy democratic functions, and funded and managed in ways that enables a robust and ongoing evolution of platform functionality free of control by those in political power and/or those wielding concentrated economic power.

Is Zuck’s lofty vision compatible with Facebook’s business model?

In a long February 16, 2017 post shortly after the 2016 presidential election, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said this about the future role of Facebook:

“the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us…for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all.”

One need not doubt Zuckerberg’s sincerity to question whether Facebook—even after it implements promised reforms and Europe’s GDPR takes effect—is an entity we can trust to play the role he suggests in the above statement. Among the reasons, which also apply to Google and other dominant platform companies, are:

  1. Supporting healthy political functions is not the primary focus of these platforms’ business models. This raises questions about whether they would consistently prioritize the evolution of what would hopefully become a vital public infrastructure whose “political democracy enhancement” goals do not seem well suited to enterprise models fueled by advertising revenue and prioritizing growth in shareholder value.
  2. Their economic and strategic interests may at times come into direct or indirect conflict with the achievement of some socially valuable reforms. This carries risks that those reforms may be ignored or even opposed by the companies that control the platforms citizens rely on to support healthy political democracy.
  3. There are many and sometimes severe obstacles facing efforts to maintain and strengthen healthy democratic functions, which suggests that a strongly and consistently focused effort will improve prospects for successfully overcoming these obstacles.

These factors, coupled with what I believe is a sincere desire by Zuckerberg, Google’s founders and others in the tech industry to support healthy democratic functions, leads me to recommend that the giant platform companies (and perhaps the tech industry as a whole) jointly support (but do not control) the creation of an online platform whose sole purpose is to use digital technology to strengthen political democracy.

Designed to bolster democracy, not shareholder returns

Though I don’t claim to have a comprehensive set of recommendations about how such a project should be developed, below are some initial thoughts intended to stimulate discussion aimed at developing such recommendations:

  • It seems essential that a “democracy platform” operate as a strictly non-partisan entity, with a clear charter committed to supporting a well informed and civically engaged citizenry and an electoral process and governmental bodies reflecting the will and protecting the rights of that citizenry.
  • This platform would not issue market-valued stock and would preferably be designed as a non-profit entity.
  • I’d recommend that development costs be supported by some combination of funding and in-kind support from platform companies, the broader tech community, the federal government and other sources (e.g., foundations). Similarly, its operating expenses could be funded by these same sources through an earmarked tax and/or federal budget allocation that is reliably immune to political manipulation.
  • Support for operating expenses might also come from service fees and/or advertising, but: 1) the use of fees should in no way discourage citizen participation, especially by those lacking financial resources and; 2) the priority of the platform’s approach to advertising should not be revenue growth, but rather the encouragement of fact-based communication and effective yet First Amendment-friendly constraints on the spread of misinformation that targets lizard-brain stimulation and fuels prejudice, hatred and violence.
  • The platform’s design and operation should focus intensively on protecting privacy and security, and work with the tech community to develop, test, implement and continually refine strategies and tools to enhance this protection, and proliferate these throughout the digital economy.
  • To help ensure that the platform politically empowers all citizens, it would be beneficial if its development was coupled with an ambitious program to achieve universal broadband access and digital literacy.
  • The platform’s management systems should be well insulated from manipulation and pressure from politicians and the companies that support the effort with funding and in-kind services.

In a 2015 post on the blog of Michigan State University’s Quello Center, I briefly discussed a number of efforts to leverage digital technology to improve the quantity and quality of citizen participation in our democratic systems. That post included videos of several presentations at the 2015 Voting and Elections Summit, co-sponsored by Fair Vote, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Overseas Vote Foundation and the U.S. Vote Foundation.

One venture featured at that conference struck me as closest to my own vision of what is possible and desirable in terms of democracy enhancing digital platforms: the Global Social Network for Voters (GSNV) project being developed by Reinventing Democracy International (RDI).

The rationale and design of the GSNV platform, described in a text document and infographic, is based on what RDI calls the Interactive Voter Choice System (IVCS), for which RDI founder Nancy Bordier holds a U.S. patent. Key features of the IVCS are discussed in a three-part series of blog posts co-authored by Bordier’s RDI colleagues Joe Firestone and Henk Hadders.

The basic idea for IVCS occurred to Bordier (a political scientist by training who had worked at Prodigy back in the early days of online platforms) when she was working on the Howard Dean campaign, arguably the first presidential run that made heavy use of the grassroots mobilizing power of networked digital technology.

To get a better sense of what RDI, GSNV and IVCS are about, I’d recommend this 16 minute video in which Bordier and RDI co-founder Joe Firestone review the problems plaguing American democracy followed by an explanation of how the GSNV would help address them (to save a little time you can skip the intro and start around the 2 minute mark).

The conference discussion continues in the video below, with a group conversation involving representatives from multiple organizations that have developed digital tools for improving democracy. A key point made by Bordier early in this discussion is that the GSNV is intended to provide a platform to support a range of democracy-enhancing tools, similar to the way Facebook has provided a platform for the growth of apps, but with a more clear and specific purpose of enhancing healthy democratic functionality.

As moderator Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat suggests at the start of the group discussion, it is easy to be skeptical about the prospects for success of a project with the ambitious goals targeted by RDI. That being said, my sense is that a Global Social Network for Voters, if well designed, funded and maintained, could be an important and continually evolving platform to support healthy democratic societies in the digital age. I also believe that, in the wake of the 2016 election:

  • there is an increased sense of urgency regarding the need for a solution with the comprehensiveness and power Bordier claims GSNV can bring to the task of revitalizing our political democracy;
  • helping to design and implement digital systems that make the process of democratic self-governance more efficient, engaging and effective is a challenge well suited to the talents, idealism and can-do spirit of the tech community;
  • the role and reputation of platform companies as good corporate citizens could be greatly enhanced if they step up to contribute a small portion of their profits and expertise to an effort focused specifically on strengthening democracy at a time when it seems to be under siege around the world.

********

Below is an outline, with links, to all the posts in this series. Unless otherwise noted, bolding in quotations is mine, added for emphasis.

  • Expanding Democratic Governance in the Digital Anthropocene
    • The digital anthropocene: a pivotal & high-risk phase of human history
    • Empathy + technology: a powerful recipe for shared prosperity & peace
    • More (and more effective) democracy as part of the solution
    • The tech sector can help lead the next phase in democracy’s evolution
  • Democracy & Digital Platforms: A Match Made in Heaven or in Hell?
    • The Facebook F-up as a wake-up call
    • Where to look for solutions?
  • Serving Users (to Advertisers to Benefit Shareholders)
    • An IPO + mobile ads: 2012 as a turning point for Facebook
    • Too busy driving growth to focus on privacy?
    • Serving users or serving users to advertisers?
    • Understanding & addressing social harms
  • Data as Power: Approaches to Righting the Balance
    • Our data is tracked & locked in a “black box” we don’t control or understand
    • The EU tightens privacy protections amid mixed signals in the U.S. 
    • Platforms as “information fiduciaries”
    • Reallocating power & benefits when users share their data
    • Shifting from an “Attention Economy” to a more efficient “Intention Economy”
    • Who owns and controls the data used to develop AI?
    • Data as labor that should be financially compensated
    • Data as an infrastructural public good
    • A “data tax” that generates a “data dividend” we all share
    • Data portability as means to enhance competition & consumer choice
  • The Power of Dominant Platforms: It’s Not Just About “Bigness”
    • New forms of concentrated power call for new remedies
    • Platforms wield transmission, gatekeeping & scoring power
    • Antitrust needs an updated framework to address platform power
    • Creating a civic infrastructure of checks & balances for the digital economy
  • Democracy & Corporate Governance: Challenging the Divine Right of Capital
    • A “generative” or “extractive” business model?
    • Dethroning kings & capital 
    • Moving beyond capitalism’s aristocratic form
    • Embracing economic democracy as a next-step Enlightenment
  • Platform Cooperativism: Acknowledging the Rights of “Produsers”
    • Reclaiming the Internet’s sharing & democratizing potential
    • Scaling a platform co-op: easier said than done
    • The #BuyTwitter campaign as a call for change
    • Encouraging the wisdom of crowds or the fears of mobs?
  • Interactions Between Political & Platform Systems
    • Feedback loops reinforce strengths & weaknesses, benefits & harms
    • Facebook’s role in the election as an example
    • If we don’t fix government, can government help fix Facebook?
  • A Purpose-Built Platform to Strengthen Democracy
    • Is Zuck’s lofty vision compatible with Facebook’s business model?
    • Designed to bolster democracy, not shareholder returns
  • Democratic Oversight of Platform Management by “Produsers”
    • Facebook, community and democracy
    • Is Facebook a community or a dictatorship?
    • Giving users a vote in Facebook’s governance
    • Technology can help users participate in FB governance
    • Evolving from corporate dictatorship toward digital democracy
Posted in Communication Policy, Next Generation Internet, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Democratic Oversight of Platform Management by “Produsers” 

In an earlier post I posited that:

  • We are experiencing negative two-way feedback loops related to problems in the governance, operation and impact of our public political institutions and that of the digital platforms we increasingly rely on in our daily lives.
  • These negative feedback loops can be turned into positive feedback loops by strategically expanding and enhancing democratic functionality in both of these two key sectors of modern society.

I followed that with another post proposing that, rather than rely on existing digital platforms to enhance political democracy, we should mobilize as a society to develop a digital platform specifically designed for this task. That post also suggested some guidelines for how we might approach the development of such a democracy-enhancing platform. These included the provision of financial and in-kind support for the platform’s development and maintenance by the dominant platform providers as part of their social responsibilities as enterprises with enormous market power and wealth, highly relevant expertise, and expanding infrastructural roles in our social, economic and political systems.

In this post I’m going to point in a direction for achieving the second prong of this democratizing agenda: expanding democratic functionality in the internal oversight and management functions of digital platforms, especially those that have aggregated massive user bases, data extraction capabilities, and economic (and therefore political) power.

Underpinning the policy directions outlined  in this post will be the groundwork laid in earlier posts, which included discussion of Facebook’s recent crisis of public confidence; the principles of economic democracy; issues and possibilities related to data ownership and control; the need for new tools to address new forms of infrastructural power in the digital age; and the emerging platform cooperative movement.

Facebook, community and democracy

Before outlining some suggestions for change, I want to consider what I believe is a blind spot in the worldview of those who, by virtue of their leadership positions in the tech industry, have come to wield enormous social, economic and political power in modern society. For multiple reasons—including the recent revelations about Facebook’s practices, the company’s massive global reach, and the relatively abundant availability of Mark Zuckerberg’s recent public statements and related commentary from experts and journalists—I’m going to focus specifically on Zuckerberg and Facebook.

Looking back to Facebook’s earlier days, we find David Kirkpatrick quoting Zuckerberg regarding Facebook’s social role, power and responsibilities in his 2010 book The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World:

“In a lot of ways Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company,” [Zuckerberg] says. “We have this large community of people, and more than other technology companies we’re really setting policies.”

Shortly after the 2016 U.S. election, Zuckerberg elaborated on his earlier recognition of Facebook’s “governmental” role in a long February 16, 2017 blog post entitled Building Global Community. In the Civically-Engaged Community section of the post he highlights the importance of democratic self-governance:

Our society will reflect our collective values only if we engage in the civic process and participate in self-governance. There are two distinct types of social infrastructure that must be built:

The first encourages engagement in existing political processes: voting, engaging with issues and representatives, speaking out, and sometimes organizing. Only through dramatically greater engagement can we ensure these political processes reflect our values.

The second is establishing a new process for citizens worldwide to participate in collective decision-making. Our world is more connected than ever, and we face global problems that span national boundaries. As the largest global community, Facebook can explore examples of how community governance might work at scale.

In the Inclusive Community section of his post Zuckerberg suggested that user-driven democratic control over content-related rules on Facebook would lead to better policies than having these rules set by him and his management team:

Building an inclusive global community requires establishing a new process for citizens worldwide to participate in community governance…I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year reflecting on how we can improve our community governance. Sitting here in California, we’re not best positioned to identify the cultural norms around the world…Community Standards should reflect the cultural norms of our community…The approach is to combine creating a large-scale democratic process to determine standards with AI to help enforce them.

Near the end of his post, Zuckerberg attempts to put current developments in historical context:

History has had many moments like today. As we’ve made our great leaps from tribes to cities to nations, we have always had to build social infrastructure like communities, media and governments for us to thrive and reach the next level. At each step we learned how to come together to solve our challenges and accomplish greater things than we could alone. We have done it before and we will do it again.

Is Facebook a community or a dictatorship?

While I admire the sentiment and vision conveyed in Zuckerberg’s post, I can’t help but see something missing in his view of democratic control of social infrastructure. And I think Zeynep Tufekci, in an April 6 Wired column, highlights the nature and impacts of this missing component in Zuckerberg’s otherwise enthusiastic embrace of democratic self-governance:

As far as I can tell, not once in his apology tour was Zuckerberg asked what on earth he means when he refers to Facebook’s 2 billion-plus users as “a community” or “the Facebook community.” A community is a set of people with reciprocal rights, powers, and responsibilities. If Facebook really were a community, Zuckerberg would not be able to make so many statements about unilateral decisions he has made—often, as he boasts in many interviews, in defiance of Facebook’s shareholders and various factions of the company’s workforce. Zuckerberg’s decisions are final, since he controls all the voting stock in Facebook, and always will until he decides not to—it’s just the way he has structured the company.

Facebook’s 2 billion users are not Facebook’s “community.” They are its user base, and they have been repeatedly carried along by the decisions of the one person who controls the platform. These users have invested time and money in building their social networks on Facebook, yet they have no means to port the connectivity elsewhere. Whenever a serious competitor to Facebook has arisen, the company has quickly copied it (Snapchat) or purchased it (WhatsApp, Instagram), often at a mind-boggling price that only a behemoth with massive cash reserves could afford. Nor do people have any means to completely stop being tracked by Facebook…

Again, this isn’t a community; this is a regime of one-sided, highly profitable surveillance, carried out on a scale that has made Facebook one of the largest companies in the world by market capitalization.

Roughly a week before Tufekci’s piece was published, platform cooperative advocate Nathan Schneider, writing on the VICE site, also highlighted the apparent conflict between Zuckerberg’s lofty visions of a democratically-managed Facebook community and the reality in which he “has managed to structure his company so as to retain monarchic powers despite being a minority owner.”

In terms of solutions, Schneider briefly reviewed the pros and cons of regulating Facebook as a “social utility.” Among the risks he cites are regulatory capture that would benefit large entrenched players like Facebook, and a potential alignment of interests between government, platform providers and ISPs, all of which might see more value than harm from the deployment of extensive user surveillance, especially if they cooperated in that deployment.

Schneider went on to suggest that “[t]here are other ways to imagine organizing a social network of Facebook’s scale—ways better aligned with Zuckerberg’s ambition of “local governance.”  One potential model worth considering, he said, is the Associated Press (AP), which was forced by a 1945 Supreme Court decision “to become a truly open-membership cooperative, owned and governed by the competing news agencies that use it.”

One approach, following the AP example, would be to reorganize Facebook into an association of diverse, interoperable social networks among which users could choose. The central company would act as a kind of franchiser, managing the core technology and underlying infrastructure; the smaller member-owner companies would compete for users by offering varied options on matters of ad deployment, data standards, content filtering, and even interface design. Like the internet’s most essential and resilient social network—email—the result would be a blend of unity and diversity. Like AP, also, Facebook would be insulated from the day-to-day economic temptations of the ad business.

Giving users a vote in Facebook’s governance

I found this approach interesting, including its parallels to the structural separation approach to regulating telecommunication networks. But I found Scheider’s second option even more so, mainly because it is anchored in participation by users in the governance of platforms to which they contribute substantial value through their usage.

A second approach might involve a more direct form of user-ownership, in which…individual Facebook users, together, wield significant ownership and governance powers. This would be especially well-aligned with one of Zuckerberg’s stated ambitions: “I hope that we can explore examples of how collective decision-making might work at scale.” Handling such governance would not be easy, but already large-scale co-ops and mutuals—think REI and Northwestern Mutual—do a fairly good job of serving member interests without being toppled by the fleeting whims of the crowd. The electric utility co-ops that supply electricity to much of rural America receive consistently higher customer service ratings than their investor-owned counterparts. If companies like Facebook are going to hold the data of our daily lives, the surest route to security and a sustainable business is for us to hold a stake in those companies in turn.

This model is grounded in the same economic democracy principles driving the platform cooperative movement, and would go a long way toward resolving the fundamental inconsistency between Zuckerberg’s praise for the value of democratic governance of the Facebook “community” and the company’s corporate ownership and management structure, which gives him near-dictatorial decision making power and features a Board of Directors comprised of Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg, several tech investors and entrepreneurs, and the Gates Foundation’s CEO.

What if Facebook users could elect some board members to represent their interests in overseeing the company’s management, just as stockholders are able to do today?

If, as Zuckerberg realized at least a decade ago, Facebook “is more like a government than a traditional company,” shouldn’t it operate more like a democracy and less like a dictatorship or investor-controlled oligarchy?  Especially so, given the company’s repeated lapses in privacy protection followed by apologies, which culminated in a clearly “over the creepy line” mix of events associated with the 2016 election.

Technology can help users participate in FB governance

One appealing aspect of such an expansion of democratic governance is the fact that Facebook users are already very used to engaging with each other via the platform’s interactive functionality. And given the company’s world-class software development capabilities, it doesn’t seem too big a stretch to imagine it adding effective (and, yes, even enjoyable) capabilities that enable users to nominate, discuss and vote for board members (e.g., these might include one or more of the experts referenced in this series of blog posts) and participate in decision-making on key user-related issues.

And unlike political governments that are often constrained by legacy rules and processes developed decades or centuries ago, a system enabling Facebook users to elect board members could leverage digital technology to efficiently incorporate features that enhance democratic functionality and outcomes, including what is often referred to as “delegative” or “liquid” democracy.

As the one minute video above explains, a system incorporating liquid democracy allows users to either vote directly or delegate their vote to someone they trust to vote on their behalf.  And in a digitally-enabled system, a user could dynamically switch between these two modes and pick different “delegates” to represent them on different issues.  Given the social nature of Facebook’s platform and the set of interactive tools (e.g., likes, friends) it already offers, the addition of liquid democracy-based functionality to elect board members and vote on user-related issues seems like a relatively modest extension of the platform from a technical perspective.

Evolving from corporate dictatorship toward digital democracy

It’s worth noting here that, in 2015, shortly after they had a child, Zuckerberg and his wife expressed their intention to give away 99% of their Facebook stock over the course of their lifetime.

My suggestion to the Zuckerbergs at this key point in Facebook’s evolution and the ongoing but halting march of humanity toward more expansive and effective democracy, is to consider revising their stock divestiture plan to include the assignment of voting shares to Facebook users in ways that enable them to collectively participate in corporate decision-making. That participation could consist of electing board members and voting on issues that most directly impact users, including policies related to privacy and protection from harm.

Somewhat ironically, the fact that the Zuckerbergs have a controlling stake in Facebook could make it easier for the company to explore the potential of user participation in corporate governance without facing an unmanageable backlash from investors who demand fealty to the principle of shareholder primacy.  It’s worth noting here that this situation also applies to Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, the other Internet giant built on the mass-scale collection and analysis of user data underpinning an advertising-based business model that has yielded unprecedented levels of growth and market dominance.

While empowering users to participate in corporate governance would not necessarily eliminate the need for legislation aimed at regulating the platform sector, it could reduce the urgency and scope of that need.

In fact, it seems quite possible that, if well designed and executed, internal systems of democratic governance could do a better job of balancing the needs of users, shareholders, employees and other stakeholders than reliance on regulations enforced by government agencies subject to “revolving doors” and regulatory capture, and laws passed by a dysfunctional and financially corrupted Congress that understands painfully little about the digital world in which Facebook and other digital platforms operate.

My guess is that Zuckerberg, Page, Brin and most of their tech-industry peers would agree with this assessment of the relative effectiveness of direct and internal vs. indirect and externally-imposed democratic governance. If I’m correct, they might welcome the chance to pursue the former and avoid—or at least postpone, inform and/or limit the need for—the latter.  And it strikes me as possible—perhaps even likely—that the deployment of such tools could contribute not only to a restoration of flagging trust among platform users, but also to value-generating growth in platform user bases, technical capabilities and user satisfaction. And, while some of that value would presumably be monetized as shareholder returns, a portion of it would be captured by users to the extent their interests were adequately represented in platform companies’ internal democratic governance systems.

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Below is an outline, with links, to all the posts in this series. Unless otherwise noted, bolding in quotations is mine, added for emphasis.

  • Expanding Democratic Governance in the Digital Anthropocene
    • The digital anthropocene: a pivotal & high-risk phase of human history
    • Empathy + technology: a powerful recipe for shared prosperity & peace
    • More (and more effective) democracy as part of the solution
    • The tech sector can help lead the next phase in democracy’s evolution
  • Democracy & Digital Platforms: A Match Made in Heaven or in Hell?
    • The Facebook F-up as a wake-up call
    • Where to look for solutions?
  • Serving Users (to Advertisers to Benefit Shareholders)
    • An IPO + mobile ads: 2012 as a turning point for Facebook
    • Too busy driving growth to focus on privacy?
    • Serving users or serving users to advertisers?
    • Understanding & addressing social harms
  • Data as Power: Approaches to Righting the Balance
    • Our data is tracked & locked in a “black box” we don’t control or understand
    • The EU tightens privacy protections amid mixed signals in the U.S.
    • Platforms as “information fiduciaries”
    • Reallocating power & benefits when users share their data
    • Shifting from an “Attention Economy” to a more efficient “Intention Economy”
    • Who owns and controls the data used to develop AI?
    • Data as labor that should be financially compensated
    • Data as an infrastructural public good
    • A “data tax” that generates a “data dividend” we all share
    • Data portability as means to enhance competition & consumer choice
  • The Power of Dominant Platforms: It’s Not Just About “Bigness”
    • New forms of concentrated power call for new remedies
    • Platforms wield transmission, gatekeeping & scoring power
    • Antitrust needs an updated framework to address platform power
    • Creating a civic infrastructure of checks & balances for the digital economy
  • Democracy & Corporate Governance: Challenging the Divine Right of Capital
    • A “generative” or “extractive” business model?
    • Dethroning kings & capital 
    • Moving beyond capitalism’s aristocratic form
    • Embracing economic democracy as a next-step Enlightenment
  • Platform Cooperativism: Acknowledging the Rights of “Produsers”
    • Reclaiming the Internet’s sharing & democratizing potential
    • Scaling a platform co-op: easier said than done
    • The #BuyTwitter campaign as a call for change
    • Encouraging the wisdom of crowds or the fears of mobs?
  • Interactions Between Political & Platform Systems
    • Feedback loops reinforce strengths & weaknesses, benefits & harms
    • Facebook’s role in the election as an example
    • If we don’t fix government, can government help fix Facebook?
  • A Purpose-Built Platform to Strengthen Democracy
    • Is Zuck’s lofty vision compatible with Facebook’s business model?
    • Designed to bolster democracy, not shareholder returns
  • Democratic Oversight of Platform Management by “Produsers”
    • Facebook, community and democracy
    • Is Facebook a community or a dictatorship?
    • Giving users a vote in Facebook’s governance
    • Technology can help users participate in FB governance
    • Evolving from corporate dictatorship toward digital democracy

 

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The FAST PIIPS Connectivity Model, Part 1: Introduction

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.

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The FAST PIIPS Connectivity Model, Part 2: TV White Space as a Tool to Expand Rural Access

This post, which considers the potential of TV White Space (TVWS) spectrum as a tool for expanding rural access, uses two recent and related events as jumping off points for the discussion.

1. Microsoft’s July 12 announcement of its Airband initiative, which aims to use unlicensed TV White Space (TVWS) spectrum to provide broadband Internet connectivity to 2 million rural Americans.

2. A July 26 Wired piece by Susan Crawford entitled Microsoft is Hustling Us With White Spaces in which Susan expresses skepticism about Microsoft’s claims regarding the value of Airband and TVWS in general as a connectivity solution for rural America.

My decision to focus on these two events and how they relate to the potential of TVWS to help connect rural communities is tied to multiple factors:

1. I’ve been a rural TVWS enthusiast since first researching the subject roughly a decade ago, which led me to write a policy paper entitled Spectrum Policy 2.0: White Space, the Internet and the Public Interest.

2. I’ve played a small role helping to catalyze the initial Microsoft-supported TVWS projects planned for Michigan, which are part of the broader 12-state Airband initiative. And I’m glad to see Microsoft launch Airband and continue to provide leadership and support for the still-nascent TVWS ecosystem.

3. I’m a longtime admirer of Susan and her work, agree with her on most telecom-related policy issues, had the pleasure of working with her around the time her Captive Audience book was published, and would welcome the chance to do so again in the future.

4. I think Susan’s piece is helpful in that it; a) reviews some TVWS history (as she notes, it’s been long, slow and messy); b) reminds readers it’s wise to: i) assume that Microsoft, like virtually all publicly traded corporations, is motivated primarily by self-interest and; ii) avoid blindly accepting heavily promoted claims regarding new technologies, products and initiatives; c) highlights the capacity advantages of fiber optics relative to TVWS and virtually any other wireless or wired forms of connectivity.

5. I’m concerned that the article’s headline and a few of its statements and implications cast an overly negative light on what I believe is an initiative that can be a key component of an effective rural connectivity strategy for the U.S. and other countries facing similar or even more severe rural connectivity challenges. More specifically, I see rapid development of a healthy TVWS ecosystem as a key component of a FAST PIIPS strategy that can expand digital connectivity and empowerment in rural areas, in the U.S. and around the world.

I hope that, by addressing some points asserted or suggested by Susan’s piece, this post will help put Microsoft’s Airband initiative in a realistic and constructive context that will: a) make sense to those concerned about our nation’s rural connectivity gaps, including Susan and those inclined to agree with her Airband/TVWS critique and/or: b) invite feedback  about where I’m misguided in my analysis of Airband as part of a “fiber + wireless” public interest-focused strategy for bringing the Internet’s benefits to those who today remain insufficiently unconnected.

In addition to its headline, the section of Susan’s piece that strikes me as unhelpfully negative is the following paragraph (bolding is mine):

“And hustled is what we will be if we believe that Microsoft’s plans, by themselves, will fix America’s desperate internet access problem in rural areas. You see, while using white spaces will certainly be better than nothing in rural locations, those guard bands simply aren’t wide enough to allow for genuine, world-class internet data transmission to human beings in living rooms. Not possible. Not enough bandwidth. True, where commercial mobile radio (like AT&T and Verizon) isn’t available at all, white spaces will definitely help. You could use it for Internet of Things applications that are very very useful, as in advanced agriculture—don’t need to send much data to do that. But you would never use a white spaces transmission service alone if you didn’t have to. You’d end up with maybe a handful of Mbps or even less—hundreds of times less than what people with fiber would be getting. White spaces will definitely be another arrow in the quiver used by local fixed wireless operations, but they are no kind of substitute for actual great consumer internet access in rural areas.”

Though I’d replace the word “hustled” with “mistaken,” I don’t have a real problem with the first sentence in this paragraph since, by including the “by themselves” phrase, it can accurately be applied to virtually any connectivity technology.  What I do take issue with is the rest of the paragraph’s characterization of the capabilities and potential benefits of TVWS in rural areas.  For example, I think Susan’s reference to TVWS as “guard bands” delivering “a handful of Mbps or even less,” doesn’t do justice to the large amount of TVWS spectrum available in rural and small town America, and its potential impact on the provision of affordable access is those areas.

Among the policy-related virtues of TVWS spectrum is that it is most abundant in rural areas where connectivity tends to be most lacking and network economics are most challenging.  This contrasts with the situation in major metro markets, which tend to have relatively few available TVWS channels but, compared to rural areas, enjoy relatively robust broadband speeds and competitive options, as well as more favorable economics for investments in fiber optic networks.  So, more so than most other connectivity options, TVWS availability is well matched to today’s unmet needs.

This matchup of availability and need can be appreciated by checking TVWS spectrum availability for small rural vs. large metro communities via the location-based search function available on Google’s (and other companies’) online spectrum database.  It is also visually apparent in the color-coded map below (each channel is 6 MHz wide), as well as zoomable maps available on some of these spectrum database web sites.

TVWSChannelAvailabilityMap

For example, according to Google’s spectrum database there are 216 MHz of TVWS spectrum available in Alpena, a town of 10,000 located in a rural region of Michigan targeted by one of Microsoft’s first wave of Airband projects.  In contrast, under current FCC rules, there is no TVWS spectrum available in New York City and Los Angeles, and only 24 MHz in Chicago.  Given this, I’d suggest that using the term “guard bands,” while it may be accurate when considering metro markets, is unhelpful as a way to describe the very large swaths of contiguous TVWS spectrum available in many rural areas (e.g., Alpena’s TVWS spectrum includes two large contiguous chunks of spectrum, one 78 MHz wide, the other 60 MHz).  As TVWS technology matures, this abundance of contiguous spectrum will enable substantially faster speeds than are being delivered today with what are still-early generations of TVWS technology.

Though I lack the expertise to estimate the average per-user data rates and pricing structures that Alpena’s 216 MHz of TVWS spectrum could support as TVWS technology matures, I’m pretty confident achievable speeds will be far beyond “a handful of megabits.”  And, I suspect that, if TVWS equipment volumes are even a fraction of today’s Wi-Fi or LTE volumes, service and equipment prices will be at least reasonably affordable as long as they are not subject to profit-focused monopoly dynamics.  And if–as Microsoft and other TVWS supporters are recommending–the FCC adopts policies ensuring that at least a handful of TVWS channels are available even in large urban markets like NYC and LA, it seems feasible that TVWS could reach volume and price levels roughly comparable to Wi-Fi, LTE and other mass-market technologies.  And even if, as Susan suggests, Airband is driven more by self-interested corporate priorities than by the public interest goal of closing the rural connectivity gap, I see significant overlap between these two agendas and believe policymakers and local stakeholders would be wise to seriously consider how to leverage that overlap to more effectively connect currently underserved communities.

Understanding where TVWS (& other solutions) can help

All that being said, I share some of Susan’s skepticism with regard to Microsoft’s assertion that TVWS is “the best approach to reach the 80 percent of th[e] underserved rural population that live in communities with a population density between two and 200 people per square mile…[and that] fixed wireless and limited fiber to the home should be used for communities with a density greater than 200 people per square mile.”

This conclusion, derived from a directional study by Microsoft and Boston Consulting Group, presumably defines “the best approach” based on criteria and assumptions that, as far as I know, have not made made public, and may not apply very well to many real-world local situations (e.g., the specific mix of local needs, priorities, infrastructure, institutions and other resources, and the availability and cost of funding for a particular project). As one Michigan-based example that helps makes this point, I’d cite the case of Midwest Energy, a rural electric co-op that’s deploying a FTTH network in an area averaging eight premises per mile using mainly co-op owner equity and an RUS loan.  If I remember my conversion ratios correctly, this translates into a population per square mile of roughly 60, well below the 200 cited by Microsoft as the threshold that can justify an investment in an all-fiber network.  The implication here is that determining “the best approach” to expanding broadband connectivity in any given rural area will be influenced by the mix of local factors including, as in this case, the presence of a rural electric cooperative, its strategic priorities, and its financial health and access to low-cost capital.

Given this, I’d encourage Microsoft and Boston Consulting Group to share the findings and methods of their directional study as part of a broader collaborative effort aimed at developing analytical tools that can better inform broadband-related policy and investment decisions at the local, state and national level.

I’ll have more to say about the nature of such tools in the final post in this series, the next installment of which will consider Educational Broadband Service (EBS) spectrum.  As that post will explain, EBS is another underutilized connectivity resource that is abundantly available in some rural areas, and is already being deployed in a handful of pioneering projects that will generate valuable lessons from which others can learn.  And, as I’ll also discuss in a later post, there are some areas of rural America with large amounts of unused spectrum in both the TVWS and EBS bands, along with increasing amounts of open-access high capacity fiber backhaul linking community anchor institutions (CAIs) in these rural communities.  As I’ll explain in that post, this combination of unlicensed and/or education-focused spectrum, coupled with open-access non-profit fiber and the active involvement of CAIs and other community stakeholders, is the essence of the FAST PIIPS model.

Below are links to the other posts in this series. Feedback from readers, especially constructive criticism, is welcome.

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The FAST PIIPS Connectivity Model, Part 3: EBS Spectrum as a Tool to Bridge the Rural Homework Gap

In an earlier post I discussed the potential of TV White Space (TVWS) spectrum to help expand the availability of affordable high-speed Internet access in rural areas.  In this post I want to bring another underutilized spectrum band into the rural access equation: Educational Broadband Service, or EBS.

While there’s a lot that can be said about EBS spectrum and its history (for example, see Sec. 2.1 of this paper by Aleksandr Yankelevich) this post will focus on several factors that make EBS a potentially useful tool for addressing the rural broadband challenge as part of a FAST PIIPS (Fiber and Spectrum Together for Public Interest IP Services) connectivity strategy:

  1.  EBS spectrum includes five 22.5 MHz spectrum blocks totaling 112.5 MHz in the 2.5 GHz band. Operating in this band enables EBS networks to leverage technical progress and volume-related cost reduction already achieved in the large and well established global LTE equipment market. Though EBS lacks the strong non-line-of-sight capabilities of TVWS, EBS networks can operate at higher power levels than networks relying on unlicensed TVWS or Wi-Fi technologies.  And, as users of exclusively licensed spectrum, they are not subject to the type of interference constraints that, as demand intensifies, can disrupt performance and business models in unforeseen and uncontrollable ways for networks relying on unlicensed spectrum.
  2. EBS spectrum is licensed only to educational institutions, which positions it especially well to serve educational purposes, including helping to bridge the “homework gap” that has become an increasingly important issue within the educational community, especially with regard to poorly connected rural areas.
  3. Much of today’s licensed EBS spectrum, especially in metro markets, is currently leased on a long-term basis to Sprint and other commercial wireless service providers.  As a result, its education-focused value in these markets is limited mainly to using lease payments to support educational purposes and programs.
  4. In contrast to these metro markets, licenses for EBS spectrum in some rural areas have not been licensed by the FCC, and thus lays dormant.  In recent years this has led a handful of pioneering educational institutions to request and receive a waiver to use unlicensed EBS spectrum to deploy LTE-based education-focused networks.

Michigan pioneers use of EBS to expand rural connectivity

To my knowledge, the most ambitious example of this waiver-based use of EBS spectrum is Northern Michigan University (NMU), which the FCC has authorized to use the full 112.5 MHz of EBS spectrum to serve the state’s thinly populated Upper Peninsula. Last November NMU began offering its Educational Access Network (EAN) service through other educational institutions in the region and directly to individuals seeking improved access to online educational resources.  In late March of this year the university announced receipt of a $6.5 million state grant from the Michigan Strategic Fund Board, which it will match with $3.2 million of its own funds to expand EAN’s existing coverage area to 64 cities and townships in the Upper Peninsula over a two-year period.

According to its web site, the EAN offers “best effort” off-campus connectivity using carrier-grade wireless equipment at a range of speeds and prices, none of which is constrained by monthly data usage limits.  Tiers include $19.95/mo. for 5Mbps/2Mbps service, $24.95 for 10Mbps/5Mbps, and $34.95 for a 15Mbps/5Mbps tier. The EAN site also notes that some “degree-seeking undergraduate and graduate students receive access to the EAN as part of their tuition and fees.”

Depending on distance from a transmitter and obstacles impeding line-of-sight, EAN end-user equipment options include portable LTE devices (usable where signal strength is strongest), indoor units, or outdoor antennas. The latter provide the strongest connections and are presumably necessary to obtain reliable service at the edges of network coverage. Based on the address a user provides upon enrollment, NMU provides recommendations regarding the type of connectivity devices best suited for that location.EBSLicensesAvailinMI

Though the EAN network is currently licensed to serve only Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the above map shows that other rural portions of the state also have a substantial amount of unlicensed EBS spectrum that could be used to support an expansion of EAN or launch of another education-focused network (this county-based map provides only an approximation, since EBS licenses are currently issued based on a 35-mile coverage radius).

As the map indicates, 3-5 EBS spectrum blocks (67.5-112.5 MHz) remain unlicensed–and therefore potentially available via waiver or renewed FCC licensing–in much of the northern (and generally rural) portion of Michigan, whereas most of the southern portion of the state, where its larger and more densely populated cities are located, has no EBS spectrum available.

In my next post I’ll consider the overlaps between available TVWS and EBS spectrum, using a handful of small Michigan communities as examples. I’ll also consider how this combined spectrum availability can be combined with the increased availability in rural areas of open access high-capacity fiber backhaul, much of it funded through federal programs such as the stimulus-financed Broadband Technology Opportunities Program and the E-Rate program that has helped finance fiber connectivity for many schools and libraries. This extension of mainly nonprofit fiber to CAIs and other locations in smaller communities and rural areas can provide last mile networks–whether wireless or wired–with increased bandwidth and improved economics when it comes to the backhaul capacity needed to support reliable and scalable high-speed connectivity within their communities.

Below are links to the other posts in this series. Feedback from readers, especially constructive criticism, is welcome.

 

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The FAST PIIPS Connectivity Model, Part 4: Fiber and Spectrum Together (FAST) for Rural Access

In my last two posts I discussed how unlicensed TVWS spectrum and education-focused EBS spectrum are underutilized and potentially valuable connectivity resources in many underconnected rural communities. In this post and the next, I hope to flesh out my vision of a rural FAST PIIPS model a bit more, with a focus on the connectivity potential offered by these two spectrum bands when combined with open-access non-profit high-capacity fiber backhaul.

As I did in those two initial posts, I’m going to use Michigan as an example, mainly because it’s the state I’m most familiar with, as both a resident and policy analyst.  As a first step, I’m going to compare the amount of unlicensed TVWS and EBS spectrum in seven small communities in northern Michigan to the average sub-3 GHz spectrum holdings of the nation’s four dominant mobile operators following this year’s 600 MHz auction, according to data compiled by research firm Allnet Insights & Analytics.

RuralEBS&TVWSComparedtoMobileCarriers

As the above graph clearly shows, the combined total of  unused TVWS (the blue <1 GHz bar) and EBS (the green 2-3 GHz bar) spectrum in all seven of these small Michigan communities is far greater than the nationwide average holdings in comparable spectrum bands for each of the four major mobile carriers.  While the latter ranges from 110 to 202 MHz and averages 146 MHz, the potential sub-3 GHz FAST PIIPS spectrum in the seven rural communities ranges from 230 to 329 MHz and averages 289 MHz, nearly twice the average for the four dominant national wireless carriers.

While these spectrum counts do not provide clear apples-to-apples comparisons, they do suggest that TVWS and EBS spectrum have potential to deliver digitally-empowering data rates in sparsely populated rural areas.  I was recently involved in a research project examining pioneering projects exploring this potential, and would strongly encourage further research in this area, as well as additional (and well-documented) deployments that learn from these pioneering projects and leverage the continued evolution of technology and business models related to addressing the rural connectivity challenge.

Fiber backhaul: The “F” in FAST PIIPS that helps ensure it will be “fast”

As noted briefly above and in the two preceding posts, the use of abundant and low-cost yet underutilized spectrum to support last mile access is not the only technology component of the FAST PIIPS connectivity model.  Another core element is the availability of open access, high capacity fiber backhaul.

In many states, an increasing amount of this fiber backhaul capacity has become available this decade as mainly-nonprofit network operators have extended fiber deeper into rural areas with support from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) established by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

In Michigan, the primary recipient of BTOP infrastructure funding was Merit Network, a nonprofit entity that mainly serves the state’s educational community and other community anchor institutions (CAIs), and is owned by Michigan’s major universities.

MeritFiberNetworkPhases

The red and blue lines in the above map (original here) show how Merit’s network expanded more deeply into Michigan’s rural areas during two waves of BTOP-supported network construction in the first half of this decade.

When we examine Merit’s network map in the context of the maps and graph presented earlier in this series of posts, it becomes clear that much of the network’s BTOP-supported expansion occurred in rural areas where the unused stocks of TVWS and EBS spectrum are relatively abundant.  For example, according to the map, Alpena in the northeastern lower peninsula, and Escanaba, in the southcentral upper peninsula, were both added to Merit’s fiber backbone network during this period.  And, as indicated in the spectrum graph, each of these communities have more than 325 MHz of unused TVWS and EBS spectrum available.

As I see it, this combination of: 1) high-capacity open-access nonprofit fiber and; 2) abundant spectrum unburdened by auction costs are the core network elements comprising the FAST (fiber and spectrum together) component of the FAST PIIPS connectivity model.

My next post will consider the PIIPS (public interest IP services) component of this model, with a particular focus on the institutional arrangements and motivations best suited to apply the model in rural areas facing challenging network economics.

Below are links to the other posts in this series. Feedback from readers, especially constructive criticism, is welcome.

 

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