Broadband at a Crossroads


The above cartoon is by the wonderful Martin Vidberg. I published an English version of it (with his authorization) on my blog Fiberevolution in February 2009, and later that year used it in a presentation I gave at a conference organised by NZ regulator ComCom on broadband policy. In some ways I should not be surprised, but I'm still a little shocked that this was over 11 years ago and is still as relevant today.

That's not to say that nothing happened during these 11 years. A lot of things happened in terms of broadband coverage, and various flavours of fibered broadband have spread wider and reached more people, certainly in the developed world. In a sense, the frontier of decent broadband vs. insufficient broadband has been pushed further out, and that is a good thing.

I used to write very regularly on these issues, but in the last couple of years I shifted my advocacy to different, less visible vectors. There is a point when you realise that saying the same thing over and over again might not deliver much extra benefit to the sector. As an analyst, I am relatively agnostic as to how you reach the goal as long as the goal is met. Over the years, I have advocated for structural separation, public-private partnerships in various guises, regulatory incentives, but also, from a technology standpoint for various flavours of FTTH, FTTB, FWA when fibered and relevant, etc.

Vidberg's cartoon however, perfectly encapsulates the opposite argument to a more comprehensive broadband coverage: it costs money and might cut into profits. I'm not going to (once more) argue that this is a flawed argument. The fact is that as far as infrastructure shy governments are concerned, it's an effective argument and arguing for universal broadband has been an uphill battle.

Right now however, we stand at a crossroads. It should be evident to anyone who has been confined lately that the quality of your broadband (not to mention the fact that you have broadband at all) is crucial in keeping in touch with loved ones you are separated from, keeping involved in your day job (if it can be done remotely) and keeping your kids in school (of sorts). In other words, key to maintaining some kind of normalcy and sanity. And I'm not even talking about entertainment.

There are so many factors in how various economies and societies will have weathered the storm that I strongly doubt it will be possible to establish some statistical correlation between how well they fared and how broadly deployed fiber broadband is. I am reaching out to various companies to try and understand how customers reacted to the lockdown in terms of upgrading their broadband, and will share the results if I get them (if you'd like to contribute anonymously, please get in touch).

It is clear to me however, coming out of this, that universal broadband policies will need to be accelerated. Too long have advocates of "laisser faire" when it comes to infrastructure deployment managed to paint broadband as a luxury, as "enabling entertainment platforms" or in some particularly egregious examples as "funding the development of high quality porn".

Broadband has been key in this current crisis, in ensuring continuity with work, with communications and in some instances with healthcare. This alone should be enough to finally bury the myth that broadband is for personal fun.

How countries that are lagging behind in decent broadband deployment tackle this issue coming out of the crisis will be key. Funds will be in short supply; short-term arguments will flourish; many sectors will (legitimately) vie for attention and funding. It will be our job as broadband advocates to help governments arbitrate and find the most effective ways of accelerating broadband plans towards universal coverage.

Not just because we know that confinement might be a stop and go policy, but because this crisis will have proven that the resilience of our systems (damaged though thay may be) is largely dependent on our broadband infrastructure. Time to get back to advocating work.