National Broadband Plans: From Vision to Strategy to Execution

National Broadband Plans:
From Vision to Strategy to Execution

Speech As Prepared for Delivery

Thank you for inviting me to share in this important event on the Qatar National Broadband Plan.

We’re here to discuss the choices Qatar should make as to its broadband ecosystem. I thought I’d start by noting how different this is from many other policy debates.

Often, whatever the topic, both sides express hypothetical and apocalyptic visions about what will happen if we walk a path different than the one they advocate. Such debates remind me of comedic advice once offered new college graduates: “Mankind is facing a crossroad. One road leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other leads to total extinction. I hope you will have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

That is not the choice when it comes to broadband.

By its nature, broadband should provide us all optimism. As with every technological change, there are challenges, but broadband offers us all an avenue to share the most important resource on the planet and one that—as noted at the beginning of the Qatar plan—“is our future because unlike natural resources, it cannot be exhausted.” That resource is knowledge.

Knowledge, however, is only valuable to the extent it is exchanged effectively. Otherwise, it has the same value as the oil that has fueled your growth had 12 decades ago.

We are really here to celebrate the opportunity that the technology revolutions of the last two decades in computing, storage, and broadband have created in providing a platform for exchanging information in ways that can positively transform every part of the economy and everything we do.

Broadband is also different from a lot of other policy debates in that we don’t have to debate hypothetical endgames.

In fact, we know the endgame.

It is ubiquitous, constant Internet access, with abundant bandwidth, connecting all manner of devices, with the final connection being over some manner of spectrum but with the traffic traveling most of its journey over a wired network. As we progress towards that endgame, we will do kinds of things over broadband--that commons of collaboration--that we currently do but in far less efficient ways.

The debate is not about that endgame. It is about how to get there.

What I would like to do today is talk about how National Broadband Plans map out a path for countries to reach that endgame, and how some Plans do it more successfully than other. I also want to discuss one big question affecting the path by which we reach that endgame. I will conclude with a few comments and ideas for Qatar as it moves forward with its long-term goal of establishing itself as a leader in the world with that critical, sustainable resource of information.

First, let’s look at National Broadband Plans.

All National Broadband Plans rely on the same four foundation stones to build a thriving broadband ecosystem.

  • Use spectrum more efficiently
  • Drive fiber deeper into the network
  • Get everyone on the network in one or more places
  • Use the platform to deliver public goods more effectively

One could deliver a separate session on each, but here’s a summary of the lessons learned.

As to spectrum, each country has four basic challenges:

  • Balancing allocating spectrum for both licensed and unlicensed uses;
  • Reallocating spectrum as uses and technology change;
  • Developing policies that accommodate the difference between urban areas, that are potentially fiber rich and spectrum poor, and rural areas, that are the opposite; and
  • Harmonizing its spectrum plan with international plans to take advantage of global economies of scale with equipment.

Spectrum is not more important than the other three foundation stones. It is, however, the most important to get right because it harder to course correct. If initial efforts fail to drive fiber deeper, get everyone on, and use the platform well, you can adjust rapidly. If you allocate spectrum in ways that do not work well, the embedded owners and users of the spectrum will make it difficult to shift.

As to fiber, the table stakes are to have a rational policy for sharing access to rights of way and other infrastructure that incents basic deployment. Longer term, the challenge is to find a way to incent deployment of networks that don’t just respond to today’s demand but that anticipate tomorrow’s and eliminate bandwidth as a constraint to innovation.

The Qatar plan articulates the spectrum and fiber goals differently than I have. The Plan suggests goals of two providers everywhere, household minimum speeds, and institutional minimum speeds. I am not saying that goals are wrong; rather, I am pointing out that whether you achieve those three goals has very little to do with the goals themselves and everything to do with how you allocate spectrum and create incentives to deploy fiber. As you acknowledge, for example, competition is currently limited by the complex and time-consuming way government provides access to rights of way to existing infrastructure. The current incentive structure favors working with vertically integrated operators, instead of the wholesale providers that can bring new competitive dynamics to the market.

The Qatar Plan addresses the issues I am most concerned about in Chapter 5, which focuses on efficient management of resources, such as spectrum and infrastructure. If you manage those resources well and encourage competition, you will drive the deployment of faster, better, cheaper broadband, and likely meet your goal.

As to getting everyone on the network, the challenge is complex, involving not just price, though that remains an issue for many, but the interactions of price, relevancy, and social virology. Governments address this best by focusing on increasing the value of broadband by creating incentives to use the broadband platform for those groups that are under-adopters. Your plan wisely calls for that in Policy Action 3.3. Further, Qatar’s high literacy rate places you in pole position for accomplishing this goal, as literacy is one of the biggest barriers to adoption.

As to using the platform to deliver public goods more effectively, the challenge is twofold:

  • First, transitioning government activities that by their nature must serve all from an analog, paper platform, to a digital platform, without leaving people behind; and
  • Second, rethinking how government actually delivers services.

I admire your plan’s candor in acknowledging that the government’s “Hukoomi” services are still not used by the majority of the population and that “the current reliance on paper for all sorts of administrative procedures by companies and individuals is inefficient, places an unnecessary strain on an already loaded public sector and has a negative impact on the quality of life of citizens and residents.”

Clearly, you understand the challenge that the government has to move away from the age of paper and rethink how it delivers what its people need.

The great business sage Peter Drucker described this challenge when he wrote: “the danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence. It is to react with yesterday’s logic.”

The biggest challenge in delivering public goods over broadband is that time and time again, governments react to the opportunity with yesterday’s logic.

But while there is much that is common among all national broadband plans, they differ according to national characteristics.

Countries each start in a different place. They have different levels of computer literacy, different market, regulatory and legal structures. Each country starts with different competitive advantages and disadvantages in terms of how it can utilize broadband to create economic and social progress and lead in the 21st Century Information Economy.

Most analysis would focus on those differences but my experience would suggest another difference is most critical—that is the difference in the government institutions that are responsible for implementing the plan.

And that is the most important point I will offer you today—that the execution of the Plan is more important than the Plan itself. Good execution can correct for any errors in the Plan. A great plan with lousy execution will ultimately fail.

A Plan, like all public policy efforts, boils down to three elements: aspiration, the strategy to achieve that aspiration, and the tactics, which your plan refers to as “action areas” to execute on that strategy.

Aspiration is easy, execution is hard.

But sadly, most national broadband plans focus on the aspiration element. I understand why. Most of the press coverage of the Plans focuses on how the government frames the aspirations.

We had a problem in the United States with policy makers who thought the only point of the Plan was to articulate aspirations, rather than figure out a path to achieve them. So in the section on goals we added a reference to a scene from Shakespeare in which one character says “I can call the ghosts from the vasty deep.” Another responds, “Why so can I or any man. But if you call them, will they come?” The point was subtle hint that the policy makers should focus on execution. Alas, I think it was too subtle. And the execution of our Plan gets mixed marks.

For in the long run, the key variable is execution.

The U.S. Army has a saying: “amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics.”

With broadband plans, amateurs talk strategy, rank amateurs talk aspirations, and professionals talk execution.

The countries that have done well, like Korea, have demonstrated a long-term commitment to building a broadband based economy. They are constantly studying, reconsidering, course correcting and moving towards that goal.

The single most important sentence in the United States broadband plan was the opening sentence of the final chapter on implementation: “this plan is in Beta and always will be.”

While there is much to admire in the Qatar plan, I hope you will regard the plan as being in Beta and adjust as necessary. I know that you, wisely, call for continuing reviews of your plan, with one scheduled for 2016.

I began by saying that we all know the endgame.

But we don’t know the ultimate architecture by which we achieve that outcome.

Here’s what I mean.

Today, in developed countries, most consumers pay for two forms of broadband; one over a fixed wire, such as fiber or cable, and a mobile one over a cellular network.

Today, there is limited competition between the wireless and wired broadband offerings. Like the early days of mobile voice, where the mobile offering was complimentary to fixed voice, almost no one cuts off their fixed service to relay solely on mobile. As your plan notes, “As fixed and mobile technologies do not offer equivalent service, choice will be provided across both technologies.” You are right about today.

But as everyone who will play here in the World Cup in 2022 knows, you should not focus on where the ball is; you should focus on where it is going.

And where it is going is that both fixed and mobile are improving in ways that will put them in greater competition. Wireless, in its 4G and subsequent modes, will provide speeds equivalent to, or better than, speeds provided to most wireline customers today. At the same time wired will increase its speeds beyond which wireless is ever able to achieve and, through small cells, like Wi-Fi, will increasingly be able to offer mobile functionality.

In a few years, in many places in the world, there will be a marketplace battle between what we might think of as cellular pus compression v. big bandwidth plus small cells.

As an investor, I would have one view that I will not go into today, though I would note that both sides benefit from the huge savings in capital expenditures small cells provide carriers.

From a policy perspective, however, government should not choose who wins. Rather government should enable both models, and others, such as satellite, to offer the best package they can.

There are many reasons the government should not choose. It might choose wrong. The answer might be different for different parts of the country.

But the biggest reason is that the country will benefit from the battle. The more that private sector forces invest in improving their networks, the better, in the long run, the connectivity for all users in the country.

And you will need both architectures. As your plan suggests, you, like many others could face spectrum shortfalls in urban areas by 2020. And if the World Cup is just the beginning of Qatar as the location for periodic, large gatherings of people, all of whom will want robust mobile communications, you will need the kind of capacity that only diverse networks can offer.

Today we are focusing on what Qatar can do to assure that within its borders, it has the broadband infrastructure it needs to continue to enjoy economic and social progress.

Part of the energy that drives that vision is the admirable desire in Qatar to be a leader on the international stage.

So let me offer some thoughts on how Qatar can play a role in leading on the international broadband stage.

The World has two distinct broadband problems.

One is in those areas that are not connected, largely in rural areas of developing countries, where the cost of both traditional wired and wireless architectures make broadband unaffordable.

A second is having zones of big bandwidth widely distributed so that more can be in reach of certain kinds of communications only the best networks can provide.

In my view, Qatar can play a role in both.

As to the first, there are a number of private efforts, from Google’s Project Loon to Facebook’s Internet.org project to many others. It is a great thing that so many recognize this need.

But every time something like this happens—when there are multiple experiments of great importance—the need for information, particularly for those areas lacking in technical expertise, grows. So just as your country gave birth to Al Jazeera because you perceived an information gap, so it is that your country can play a role in assisting other countries in assessing options and in providing technical assistance in bringing broadband not just throughout your country but throughout the world; something like a broadband Peace Corps.

As to big bandwidth zones, I noted with interest and admiration the recommendation in the Plan that all education institutions (secondary and higher) and research institutions should be connected to the fiber network. I also have noted with admiration your development of Education City, congregating some of the world’s great educational institutions in a concentrated space in your country.

I think you can take this a step further and ask yourself what would happen if you were to link your resources in Qatar at the highest level of bandwidth speeds to education and research institutions around the world but particularly in developing regions? After all, university communities have both the best economics and the most innovative cultures for big bandwidth. What if Qatar were to be the hub of a larger community of educational and research institutions that interacted continually in ways that we today only see in science fiction?

Of course, it isn’t science fiction. For example, in the United States the Smithsonian Institute, a federal government collection of museums and research institutions, recently struck a deal with Internet 2, the largest research and education network, to enable college students from around the country to essentially visit and explore the museum collection—including high definition three dimensional renderings of objects in the collection—from their home colleges. The deal will also enable such things as live performances of musicians in multiple locations as if they were on the same stage.

There are infinite ways that we humans can collaborate when we remove the tyranny of distance. It is being invented in a variety of ways and I am proud of working with about three-dozen research universities in the United States to accelerate the deployment of next generation for this purpose. While the details differ, the logic for big bandwidth zones applies to developing countries as well as developed ones. Qatar ought to expand on its educational vision to take advantage of a big bandwidth world.

Let me close with a story from that future that occurred a few months ago—yes, a story from the future that occurred a few months ago.

A Khan Academy executive was visiting the Innova Schools in Peru, which rely heavily on Kahn Academy teaching modules. While the students were working away on the tablets, a teacher pointed to one student and said, “that student is about to ask me a question about negative numbers.” The Khan executive said “huh?” The teacher pointed to her tablet, which reflected the progress of each of the students on the work they were doing. When any student got a problem wrong three times, there was a red mark, as there was for this student on the problem set involving negative numbers.

Sure enough, seconds later that student raised his hand and asked the predicted question. And critically, the teacher assisted that student with the precise aid that student needed to move forward.

That is the future. It is happening today. In so many ways, the digital platform for educational knowledge exchange is simply better than the platform invented five centuries ago by Gutenberg.

I could tell similar tales about how broadband is creating a different future for delivering health care, public safety, job training and many other critical services.

Just not in many places in the world. As the writer William Gibson wrote, “the future is already here. It is just not evenly distributed.”

The challenge for Qatar, as it is for the entire world, is not to achieve perfect, equitable distribution. It is to accelerate that future when all students can have that precise aid they need to move forward, when all who are sick can have the precise assistance they need to become healthy, when all job seekers can have access to the precise training and information they need to find a job, when all governments can have actionable intelligence to improve the environment for economic growth and social progress.

Today Qatar takes a big step forward. But it is only the first step of a much longer journey.

Again, thank you for inviting me here and good luck.