U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D.-N.Y.) announced yesterday that he's calling on the FCC to "examine the success of Ontario County's Regional Fiber Network and consider it as a model as they begin their push to bring ultra-high-speed broadband into 100 million homes by 2020." Schumer is asking federal agencies for financial support to extend the upstate New York county's fiber network into surrounding areas, emphasizing the importance of broadband in attracting businesses and driving economic development."The difference between economic success and failure in a digital world will be in large part determined by access to high-speed broadband," Schumer said, touching on all the buzzwords. "We must make sure that the groundbreaking achievements of Ontario County do not go ignored, but rather are spread to the surrounding areas and the rest of the state so we can attract business, foster high-tech companies, and push the state's economy into the 21st century."
While all that sounds peachy -- free money, free broadband, booming businesses, economic prosperity -- Schumer's been down this road before, and it turned into a dead end. In 2006, at a press conference on Long Island, he said he was seeking $5 million in federal funds to subsidize construction of a high-speed Wi-Fi network to serve 3 million people across Nassau and Suffolk counties, among the most affluent in the nation.
The Long Island Wi-Fi initiative was mostly for show. The company awarded the contract in 2007, Tampa, Fla.-based E-Path Communications, had no experience with large-scale public Wi-Fi networks, but it promised the moon to the local politicos: Long Island taxpayers would bear none of the estimated $150 million cost, which E-Path was supposed to recoup through advertising and subscription fees. (Thankfully, talk of federal funding faded away.) In 2008, however, the local cable modem service provider, Cablevision, announced it would be building its own extensive Wi-Fi network (on its dime), free to all its subscribers, rendering the ill-conceived E-Path initiative dead in the water. So Chuck Schumer is on to the next broadband boondoggle.
Beware of broadband projects that sound too good to be true and are based on political posturing (jobs, community development, social welfare) rather than customer demand and commercial viability. As I argued in a recent column on the FCC's over-reaching broadband plan, once such decisions are driven by political considerations, they get tied up in special interests -- labor unions, industry associations, advocacy groups, and other voting blocs who demand a piece of the action.
Why can't the "groundbreaking" fiber optic achievements of Ontario County (funded at $7.5 million with a combination of public and private investment) be extended without heavy-handed government assistance? Perhaps because, by Schumer's own assessment, broadband penetration in neighboring counties already is quite good, ranging from 75% to 99.9% -- though the average speed, his office maintains, is less than half that in Korea. Heaven help upstate New York if it stands by while Korea flourishes with superior network speeds!
In response to my recent column, critics blasted me for venturing into "political" territory. I'd just as soon stay out of politics, if the politicians on both sides of the aisle would stay out of technology and let the FCC regulate rather than have it serve as the instrument of their public policy (and re-election) ambitions.