21st Century Telecom Policy

Lars Poulsen - 2020-11-21

A Telecom Policy for the Twenty-First Century

The COVID-19 forced homeschooling/distance learning has shown how much we need everyone to have good internet access. We need to take inspiration for how we brought affordable electricity and telephones to the rural poor and do the same for internet.

The Telecom Act of 1934

In 1934, Congress enacted 47 USC 151 et seq - the communications act of 1934, which held for 62 years before it was updated in 1996.

The 1996 law created the Universal Service Fund (USF) to collect a tax on long distance telephone companies to pay for subsidies to rural subscribers.

The Rural Electrification Act of 1936

In 1936, Congress enacted the Rural Electrification Act, Which provided federal loans to set up co-operative electric distribution networks to serve rural areas, that the for-profit electric utility companies deemed unprofitable to serve. Before the act, only three percent of farms had electricity; by 1959, that was 90%.

In 1949, the law was amended to allow similar financing for telephone companies serving rural areas.

There were also provisions added in 2008 and 2014 to try to support internet access in rural areas.


The COVID-19 lockdowns and the attendant shift to online videoconferencing of business meeting and elementary school-days has shown us that

To mitigate this, many students that were issued laptop computers by their school districts have had to find ways to make use of the WiFi access in school cafeterias or McDonald's restaurant parking lots. But while this can work in cities, where a student could potentially walk to the school campus and sit socially distanced in the cafeteria with their computer and earbuds, it is a non-starter in the Midwest farmland, where the school is often 10-15 miles away, and young children have no way to get there.

We need a way to overcome this "digital divide".

A Proposal

I propose that we define a basic communication service that should be made available and affordable to all families, consisting of at least 10 Mbps down/2 Mbps up broadband Internet service. (The Federal Communications Commission in 2015 has defined "Basic Broadband" as at least 25 Mbps down, 3Mbps up.)

In urban and suburban areas, this can be provided by ADSL circuits, but in rural areas, it will have to be substantially fiber-based or wireless. While satellite based access seems like a natural fit for this, the current state of that business (relying on geosynchronous relay satellites) has long latency limiting effective throughput, and also does not provide enough bandwidth to provide broadband service for large populations. (This may change with some of the low-orbit systems currently under construction.)

The for-profit telecommunications companies have not been good at building affordable access networks. When the Federal government has enacted subsidies to assist with the build-out of these services, the companies have been very good at collecting the subsidies, but have often fallen short of delivering the promised services. It seems to me that it would be better to ask county governments to build and operate these networks. Indeed, where cities have established such municipal fiber networks, they have been very successful.

I propose that we

My gut feeling is that the Basic Broadband Service could be delivered at a cost of $60/month. Most households would add a television service such as HULU or Apple TV+ which replaces old fashioned Cable TV or satellite video subscription services. Because these video programming services would be in direct competition without a monopoly in each geographical area, they would likely be much less expensive than current cable TV.

Low-income families with school children would be eligible to discounted or free services to support their educational needs.

While the FCC has declared basic service to be 25/3, I think 10/2 is an acceptable compromise for a minimum service; it seems a reasonable way to create a "cheap" low tier for subsidized users, even if there is little difference in actual cost of provision.

For rural deployments, I envision stringing a cable along roadside "telephone posts", containing

At each subscriber branch off point, a multiplexer/MAC switch. The above fiber cable would be pre-fabricated in lengths to fit between branch points. The "drop line" could be fiber or ADSL; for the lowest service tier, ADSL would certainly be adequate.

This would be very similar to the common FTTN (Fiber To The Node) system used for cable TV/Internet in suburban areas.

Comments welcome to lars@beagle-ears.com
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