It All Depends on What the Meaning of the Word “Unserved” Is

Yesterday’s hearing on broadband stimulus reportedly was SRO, yet after several hours, most attendees walked away shaking their heads over the lack of general detail and panel’s own reticence to define what an “unserved area” is.

You’d think it would be an easy binary yes/no answer to the question, “Is broadband service available in your city/town/region?” Such are the politics when it comes to a $7.2 bilion government giveaway.

Defining unserved seems to be a no-brainer. But to be fair, it is a little more difficult to define “underserved,” which apparently FCC Chairman-designate Julius Genachowski is going to have to do. Underserved could mean:

1. Broadband is available to one geographical segment of a broader geographical area. The question is, how do you carve up that area to measure relative penetration. Are we talking one small town, or a state the size of Utah?
2. Broadband is available to one group of users, say commercial operations such as a local factory, hospital or school, but not to the general population. This gets a little tricky because the infrastructure serving local business, thereby creating jobs and stimulating the local economy. What you don’t have is a developed consumer market. Does it warrant a stimulus?
3. Broadband speeds are 4 Mb/s or less. Which means the systems are adequate, just not state-of-the-art.
4. Any other creative definition that can be used by a lobbyist to extract broadband funds.

Still, from BusinessWeek’s report, the bureaucratic hand-wringing out-of-the-box left some attendees jaded about the process and whether, in the end, the broadband stimulus will be that productive at all.

The lack of answers proved frustrating for some participants. Charlie Mattingly, chief executive of a small Internet service provider in Texas called Broadband Rural, was taken aback that the meeting wasn’t more productive. “I had no idea how full of themselves they are in Washington,” he said. “If we had half the money that the government spent to put on this meeting today and half of the money that people spent to attend it, we could have put 1,000 people online,” he said.