Sunday, September 25, 2011

Highlights from TPRC 2011 (Research Conference on Communications, Information and Internet Policy)

The 39th Annual TPRC just wrapped up and I was honored to be able to attend this conference for the 3rd year in a row. TPRC is held every year in late September at George Mason Law School, and it has become one of the highlights of my year in terms of telecom events. TPRC is primarily for the government and academic/research telecom community, and it has benefited me as both a student and someone who is edging for a career in telecom policy. There is always an amazing selection of presenters including well-known authors, economists, legal visionaries, and engineers (national and international) who dissect nearly every possible aspect of current and potential telecommunications and information communication policy.

Friday, Sept. 23 included a few panel sessions and a keynote speech by NTIA Administrator Larry Strickling (it is always a pleasure to hear what he has to say). On Saturday and Sunday, the schedule includes 6 sessions—for each session, participants can choose from 5 different session topics, and each topic includes the presentation and open discussion of 2 or 3 research papers. I doubt any two TPRC participants have the exact same experience at the conference due to the sheer amount of material covered and the variety of sessions. I always have a really hard time deciding which sessions to attend, and I definitely have many interesting papers to read for the next few months!

I tried to pick a variety of sessions where I could hear about issues beyond what I typically focus on (rural broadband, universal service reform, FCC proceedings). I ended up learning something new and interesting about the following topics: international broadband plans, technology patents, wireless grids and social emergency response technologies, spectrum auctions and policy, FCC involvement in ISP interconnection disputes, fiber costs and competition, “phonelessness,” effectiveness of the lesser-notorious USF programs like Rural Health Care, broadband gaps, data limitations of the National Broadband Map, “Gross National Happiness” and the National Broadband Plan, international carrier selection policies, the African perspective on broadband, international telecom bribery and corruption, European Net Neutrality and the freedom of expression, and deep packet inspection. Phew! Even though there weren’t any topics specifically for, about, or presented by the RLEC industry; everything was still very much relevant to my work and my interests in rural telecom and the industry as a whole. I actually enjoy this conference mostly because it gets me away from the usual perspectives on things, and helps me think about “bigger pictures” and perspectives I may not typically consider. It also always inspires me to do my own research on topics that are both new and known to me, and in the last 2 years research from this conference has greatly aided some of my University of Colorado ITP projects.

Here are some highlights from my favorite panels and sessions:

Panel: National Strategies for Broadband Deployment, Adoption and Use: A Comparative Review and Lessons for the U.S. and Canada

This panel was really interesting to me because it discussed and compared various national broadband strategies in a variety of countries (Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, European Union, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Mexico). I actually did a broadband plan comparison study last year in an International Telecom Policy class at CU about broadband plans in the U.S., Japan, South Korea and Sweden where I discussed the NBP’s shortcoming of recommending 100 Mbps for 100 million people and 4 Mbps for rural Americans. During my research process, I had looked at national plans in a variety of countries before deciding on Japan, South Korea and Sweden—I had specifically looked for plans that set speed target goals at the same rate in urban and rural areas, and plans that focused heavily on the adoption side of the equation. Interestingly, I got the idea for this paper at last year’s TPRC from a session about broadband deployment in Japan. In this panel, Richard Bennet (ITIF) talked about the Singapore broadband strategy, which apparently came about partially from Singapore’s desire to compete with the US when Verizon started to deploy FiOS, and when it looked like the US was going to massively invest in FTTH. Singapore also wanted to position itself as a hub for biotech R&D, and improve competitiveness and quality of live through broadband. Bennet made the distinction that while the US NBP is mostly a study in the benefits of broadband; the Singapore plan is more like an actual procurement specification on what kind of technology to deploy and how to do it. Singapore now has 104.5% penetration of wired broadband and 144.2% penetration of wireless broadband, which is pretty impressive. On the opposite end of the spectrum are Latin American Countries (LACs). Prof. Judith Mariscal (CIDE) talked about the challenges that LACs face in implementing anything resembling a national broadband strategy—not many LACs have formal broadband plans, but many are grappling with some type of goals at least. Many LACs currently have broadband penetration at rates less than 10%, with Peru at 3.1%, and Peru apparently has a universal access fund that has net even been used. Overall, there is a lack of organization and coordination in LAC governments and regulatory bodies, and in the case of Mexico, a weak institutional policy combined with ambitious goals causing significant limitations to broadband achievements.

Keynote Speech by NTIA Administrator Lawrence E. Strickling

Strickling gave the keynote speech at my first TPCR (2009), and last year it was FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. It was nice to have Strickling back again; apparently he is a long-time supporter of TPRC. His keynote speech focused on the importance of implementing data-driven policies, and ensuring that telecom research and data is independent, credible and relevant. He identified research needs in the areas of broadband, spectrum and Internet policy. For broadband, we need solid research on economic and social benefits, Internet usage/behavior, availability, and discrepancies between specific groups (like urban/rural). Strickling argued that “economists have greatly advanced spectrum policy over the years;” and “the day of giving away licenses is over.” For Internet policy, we need fast and flexible decision making that does not fall prey to political stalemates and heavy handed bureaucracy.

Session: Wireless and Society
Paper: The Central Role of Wireless in the 21st Century Communications Ecology: Adapting Spectrum and Universal Service Policy to the New Reality, Mark Cooper (Fordham/Silicon Flatirons)

Cooper, who is always a lively and interesting speaker, argued that the mobile revolution is the greatest revolution in the history of humanity—unlike previous revolutions (writing, etc.); mobile communications is for everyone, not just an elite subset of the population—it also spread like wildfire. Cooper presented some interesting policy implications that are a result of the mobile revolution, which is definitely a timely issue as the government considers repurposing federal and broadcasting spectrum. Cooper warns that we must not have another “hundred year mistake” when this spectrum is released, and the government should not allocate spectrum to specific types of owners or create another batch of incumbents who will never give up the spectrum even when their use is no longer viable. He would like to see ¼ - ½ of the spectrum go to unlicensed use, and we also need better ways to determine the value of unlicensed spectrum. Cooper talked about how the value of bandwidth declines as bandwidth availability increases; and wireless operators need incentives to use spectrum efficiently and need to send signals to consumers about the costs that consumers impose as a result of their usage behavior. He made some interesting points about broadband speeds, which were typically contrary to how I think about broadband speeds (which is faster is better and the US shouldn’t settle for anything less than the best—for everyone). He said that 10 Mbps will basically do everything that people need, and engineers will figure out how to make things work within this range. He added that basically the only thing that you can do with 1 Gbps service that you can’t do with 10 Mbps is holographic videoconferencing… and really, who needs to do that? I’ve skimmed though Cooper’s paper and it is really interesting—there are some very useful charts about broadband penetration, wireless growth and speed needs for various applications.

Session: Evaluating Broadband Policy 2
Paper: “The National Broadband Map: Data Limitations and Implications,” Tony Grubesic (Drexel University; paper available upon request)

This was one of the two presentations that I was most excited about, and it did not disappoint. I fully intend to get ahold of Grubesic’s paper because his research and conclusions were very interesting and quite pertinent to a topic that I have been following this year—inaccuracies in the National Broadband Map. He argued that the map is a good start, but it is important to understand the data limitations particularly the level of participation (only 27% of Virginia providers participated) and the tendency to show “highly optimistic data.” He talked about a problem that I think a lot of people have been concerned about—that census blocks and wire centers don’t always match up, which leads to some inaccurate representations where census blocks are considered served when in fact the entire census block is definitely not served by a particular provider/technology, specifically DSL which has distance limitations. He also provided an interesting example of Dublin, Ohio where 46% of completely empty census blocks with no population or businesses are listed as served, which gives a “fuzzy view” of broadband coverage. Grubesic recommended that the map should be updated to reflect 2010 census information, and there are 35% more census blocks in 2010 than 2000 which is not reflected in the map. Overall, he thinks the map is a good effort but it is far from perfect—I definitely agree. I’ve only played around with the newly updated map for a little while, but it didn’t take me very long at all to find problems and get really frustrated with the overall navigation and ease of use. It also took forever for the map to load and then to move around within the map, which I found kind of ironic since I have a fairly decent DSL connection.

Session: ICT in Developing Countries
Paper: “Bribery and Corruption in Telecommunications,” Ewen Sutherland (University of Namur)

This was the other presentation that I was most excited about—even though this isn’t a topic relevant to my work, I thought it would be really interesting—and it was! A lot of presentations at TPRC are really heavy on econometrics and models, which are obviously important, but it is also interesting to learn about what is happening in the crazy world of telecommunications beyond graphs and charts. Anyway, Sutherland discussed a variety of colorful examples of bribery, corruption and nepotism in international telecommunications; he also discussed the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and concluded that there is very little recognition of the corruption/bribery problem or analysis of the trends in this area. There are inconsistent enforcement mechanisms across different countries, it is hard to estimate the costs on consumers, and there are even unclear standards and practices within bodies like the OECD and UN. I thought the examples of nepotism in North African/Middle Eastern countries were especially interesting—in Morocco, the king owns 69% of a major telecom provider; in Libya, the Gadhafi family owns both mobile carriers; in Syria, the president’s cousin owns 75% of Syriatel… you get the idea! Basically, even countries that have supposedly privatized and liberalized telecommunications and established an “independent” regulatory may not have truly done so, and there isn’t really anyone who can do anything about it. I am looking forward to reading Sutherland’s paper for the entertainment and shock value alone—it is chock full of crazy examples of these problems from all over the world.

Session: Network Management
Paper: “From Competition to Freedom of Expression: Introducing Article 10 ECHR in the European Network Neutrality Debate,” Jasper Sluijs (Tilburg University)

I enjoyed all three of the presentations in this session, but especially this hard look at whether Net Neutrality is a human right, or if it actually a property right for ISPs to implement network management techniques. This is an extremely timely topic as the Net Neutrality rules here were just published in the Federal Register (I’m looking forward to analyzing them in the coming weeks… kind of). Europe has taken a lighter hand on NN regulations, where non-neutrality is OK as long as network management practices are disclosed (transparency principle) so customers can make an informed purchasing decision. However, it sounds like public interest and human rights groups have been just as vocal in Europe as they have in America, and have gone as far as arguing that NN violates the freedom of expression and the EU Human Rights Convention, (which is equivalent to our Freedom of Speech, but with some codified limitations). Sluijs looked at the question: “Is network management “expression” even if it has no public value?” He explained that application of the Human Rights principle is more complex than the public interest groups assume, and the real debate should be about “substance rather than rhetoric”—I fully believe that this applies in the U.S. as well. I am far on the anti-Net Neutrality rules side, and I have been continually amused by some of the things that public interest groups have come up with in favor of these rules. Like the AT&T/T-Mobile merger, there have been a lot of really strong opinions that actually have no relation to telecom policy. Digression… My favorite example of this was an article I came across back in December by a radical feminist group who claimed that ISPs like Verizon, etc. would literally prevent women from communicating on the Internet and prevent other things like searching for abortion providers. Really?!?! ISPs don’t have anything better to do than suppress feminist-toned emails and blogs? I didn’t realize that in 2011 there was still a problem of women being treated unfairly. I also didn’t realize that deep packet inspection could determine the sex of a packet. After reading the article a few times in utter shock that anyone could come up with something so insane, it became pretty clear that the authors were of an age where the Internet was either not widely understood or not widely used. To me it seemed like they heard about this crazy net neutrality thing from a left-wing group and ran with it, all the way to the debate over a woman’s right to choose. Anyway, this presentation (and the following one in this session on political and economic issues in Net Neutrality) reminded me of that article, and how ridiculous it is that NN has become such a political issue when it is really not at all (at least, I don’t think it is… I don’t really think it is an issue at all though). Basically, the presenters at this session all described how NN is a very complex and multifaceted issue, and there are no single straightforward solutions. It will be really interesting to see what effect, if any, the US regulations have, and I expect there will be some follow-up on this at next year’s TPRC.

I highly recommend that you check out the TPRC website and skim through some of the papers. There is an amazing wealth of research available, and there are plenty of topics that have implications for rural telecommunications providers, and plenty that are just plain interesting.


This is kind of a bittersweet post for me—this will probably be my last regular entry here on Rural TeleCommentary. I will be making an announcement about it sometime this week. As is often the case with great opportunities, sacrifices have to be made. I won’t be going away, just going somewhere else full-time (JSI Capital Advisors).

I’m looking forward to hearing about the NTCA Fall Conference in Seattle!

Cassandra Heyne

1 comment:

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