It's time to get rid of broadband, bring on the NBA

Craig SettlesIt's bedtime, early January. The house is quiet, little ones are being tucked in for the night.

Princess: Daddy, what did you do at work today?

Pop: Well princess, I helped the Marketing Department pull a fast one. We told the world our aging 3G network is really a robust 4G network.

Princess: Daddy, you mean that network that's so slow you have get thousands of hotspots to offload all the iPhone data traffic? You convinced people it's a 100 Mbps super duper broadband network? Wow, that's magic.

Pop: Well, uh, not quite honey. Our nice lobbyists convinced ITU that they really didn't mean it when they set the bar for 4G so high. Besides, those marketing people at T-Mobile are marketing their 3G as 4G too.

Princess: But Daddy, if little Johnny goes and jumps into the deep pool of deceptive marketing, does that mean you should jump in too?

Pop: Hmm, maybe it's time to close your eyes, pumpkin. We'll talk about this when you're older.

I get e-notes occasionally from people asking isn't it time to get rid of the word "broadband" because it really doesn't mean anything anymore. Except maybe serving as a playpen within which creative telco and cableco marketing folks weave fanciful tales of speed and innovation to fool customers into buying a service that's not what they think it is.

Broadband initially was what we called ISDN, DSL and comparatively fast wireless access when the market needed more than dial-up or satellite's poor speed and performance. However, the computing needs among businesses, local governments, institutions and power users have been outdistancing these broadband capabilities for the past couple of years, not to mention a dearth of broadband in many parts of America.

Remember my analogy comparing large incumbents to railroads displaced by phones? 

Telcos deeply wedded to copper- and cellular-based technologies are 21st Century railroads threatened with obsolescence by communities and providers already delivering fiber networks and faster fixed wireless. Not wanting to suffer the same fate, digital railroad barons now are turning to marketing deception that calls trains "airplanes."

"Broadband" in many respects makes this deception possible because the word has (through politics and big-bucks marketing) become synonymous with "any technology that gives people and businesses access to the Net" regardless of how slow or fast. The broadband stimulus program typifies the problems you get with loose definitions.

In Round 1 of funding, broadband speed was defined as 756K or more. This enabled any network proposal to technically be eligible for big bucks. Worse, this low threshold enabled many incumbents, no matter how sorry their networks are in reality, to challenge proposals that would have delivered networks that actually meet communities' needs. Things got better in Round 2 with higher speed minimums, but the bar was still set on the low end of broadband.

We see the problem deepen with the 4G con perpetrated by effective incumbent pushback. The standards-setting body ITU (International Telecommunications Union) originally defined 4G as speeds equaling 100 Mbps, a speed closer to meeting businesses' and organizations' needs both currently and for a couple of years down the road. But alas, that benchmark went by the boards to become speeds friendlier to big wireless providers, I'm guessing in the face of subtle and less-than-subtle influence wielding.

However, why stop there? A couple weeks ago AT&T Mobility followed T-Mobile USA by announcing that, in essence, we're going to put some lipstick on this 3G network and call it 4G. I mean, really, why bother overhauling "my pipes" to compete with those launching gigabit fiber networks when I can just slap on a 4G label? Those 16 - 20 percent of iPhone users who can't wait to abandon AT&T for Verizon Wireless really fell for that charade, didn't they? At least Verizon is trying to build something new and IP-based to be (hopefully) a faster, better network, though still far short of what many non-consumer audiences want or need.

So bottom line, broadband as a word is fairly meaningless because it can mean anything if you have enough marketing bucks to throw behind your particular translation. Communities, particularly in underserved areas, can now look forward to a new wave of pitches for snake oil disguised as broadband when they are looking for services measured in tens and hundreds of megabits per second. Or gigabits. It is refreshing to learn that so far most people haven't fallen for the hype.

Communities, smart providers need to re-define the battlefield

Perhaps there is hope for our businesses, libraries, local governments, education and research institutions and other stakeholders. Concede the consumer side and leave them to wade in the waters of meaningless marketing hype. Our institutions and communities should start demanding NBA networks--Needs-Based Access--from both the federal government programs supporting broadband deployment and those claiming to be "broadband" providers. Sooner than some incumbents think, average consumers are going to demand the same.

This is a simple, easy-to-understand, market-friendly product. An NBA network is one that's fast enough, reliable enough with Quality of Service sufficient enough to actually be worth a damn to communities wanting to boost their local economies, transform healthcare delivery and address a host of other noteworthy needs. These networks meet the needs of the people and organizations spending the money for those services. And the cool thing is, it's harder to pawn off some weak imitation as the real NBA deal. Either your network meets communities' needs to facilitate economic development, for example, or it doesn't.   

Service providers that are on the ball and capable of meeting the needs in this space will find business opportunities by re-branding with a term that really means something. The residents of Keene, N.Yl, came together, identified potential customers, collected contributions from residents to enable their local ISP (KVVI) to upgrade and expand its network infrastructure, and then helped ensure there would be network subscribers. It's hard to imagine that Keene would bother with all of this for a 4G network. There are hundreds of communities, probably thousands, waiting for an NBA network, not another marketing smoke and mirrors act.

Craig Settles is an analyst and business strategist in the broadband industry who conducts on-site workshops and training for companies and communities. Follow him on Twitter @cjsettles