DEADLINE! Or the waitng game begins for OpenCape and digital capacity building
I was going to write a totally different first column for cc2day. In fact, I did write a totally different one, but with the NTIA deadline tomorrow and the buzz around the topic, well, I fell prey to the need to rant about broadband yet one more time!
As frequent readers know, the federal government is putting $7.2Billion into broadband projects as part of the economic stimulus package. For the past three years we've been working on a middle mile capacity project called OpenCape. I'm on the board of directors of the nonprofit corporation that is driving this effort.
We knew there was a need. By 2006, people and organizations across the Cape and southeastern Massachusetts were shouting their frustration with the lack of options and limited infrastructure capacity, a lack that was fast becoming a bottleneck to economic growth. A whole bunch of the people who were shouting in frustration ended up connecting with each other and the formal OpenCape entity was born, shaped by regional need and dedicated to open access vendor neutral solutions that would support us on both economic and public safety issues.
You see, Verizon and Comcast were right when they didn't put our region at the top of their investment list - it isn't their job to create the infrastructure our communities needed to sustain. Their job was to provide a return to their shareholders based on their business models. We didn't fit that business model mold. But that didn't mean we had to settle for small crumbs or to live without the full array of options that are available in the 21st century ... we just needed to find another way to get there.
It turned out there were a lot of other places like us, places who need a robust digital infrastructure to sustain our businesses and ourselves and to keep us on the highway of commerce so that we'd be more than a museum.
Think this is hyperbole? Just visit any of the many ghosts of towns that the interstate highway buildout bypassed and you can see the impact missing out on infrastructure jas on sustainability. It's not pretty.
The growing realization of this need among so many communities was one of the factors that triggered the current round of federal investment in our nation's digital infrastructure. Here on the Cape, we've completed the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program application, competing for a slice of that program's $4.7Billion investment dollars. A small group of dedicated folks has been pretty much putting the rest of life on hold and living and breathing NTIA and BTOP since early July. Now we wait for the results.
On the national scene, there have been volumes of misinformation about the grants. The federal government, to the dismay of many community advocates, encouraged the participation of private industry. Creating private-public interactions is a great way to find solutions outside the traditional approach, and lots of creative solutions have emerged as a result.
But the requirements that a publicly funded asset be accessible by any who can pay the freight, have the technical capacity, and are using it for legal purposes was too big a burden for the top tier of industry that has a long history of secretive play and fierce ownership. In the end, the giant telecom providers, who don't like the concept of open access vendor neutral networks, are by and large declining to participate in the process and are going on the attack to bad mouth the programs. Funny, the same people who only invest if they can project an attractive rate of return don't want anyone else investing either. I think this is called having your cake and eating it too.
The world increasingly relies on digital infrastructure to function. Much of the talk about the "digital divide" has focused on very surface level topics, like number of computers per household. But the real digital divide in our country is a split between entire regions, some of whom have digital infrastructure and some of whom have digital leftovers. We have a dynamic where one or two large companies decide how much infrastructure is doled out based on how much return they will make on their investment.
No one wants to stop companies from making money. Money IS good! But, we shouldn't stop communities from investing in themselves, either.
Infrastructure is something that it takes an entire community to address and that creates potential benefits for all. It is bigger than any one of us; we can't build it one person at a time. It's the deep and difficult issue of core capacity.
If you believe that government has a role - and I do believe that - and that part of the role is enabling core capacity, then BTOP and BIP are investments that were inevitable and ones that history will look back upon and judge as the point in time when we realized that we were ready to take on the infrastructure of tomorrow and make opportunism for everyone.
OpenCape is truly that kind of effort - by, of, and for the region. And like a whole lot of others I am hoping and believing that all will come out right in the end and here on the Cape and southeastern Massachusetts we'll finally have a way past the bottleneck of limited digital capacity.