Blog: Mark Radabaugh - Policymakers Win When All Broadband Solutions Are at the Table

No doubt, broadband is a main driver in making our economy and our lives better.  In good and tough times.  A test of its mettle can be seen in how it helped us survive through the pandemic. Not just in big cities like Cleveland, OH, but in rural communities like mine in Luckey, OH, enabling access to schooling, work, telehealth, religious services, entertainment and, perhaps most importantly, our friends and families through the crisis.
Our networks worked in the most unforgiving of circumstances. Offering access to communities left behind by billion-dollar providers.  Providing competition to those providers who delivered the bare minimum.  And private investment was key to that.
I run Amplex Internet, a broadband provider serving rural northwest Ohio.  I started the business in 1997 to meet the need for internet connectivity when the area was unserved even by local dialup service.  In 2003, we began offering broadband via fixed wireless connectivity.  Today, we offer 50/5 megabit per second, fixed wireless service (which is approximately twice the FCC benchmark standard); and, where we have built fiber networks, gigabit service. Importantly, Amplex has done this without federal or local subsidies and has been profitable the entire time.   
Fixed wireless providers like Amplex play an important role in keeping our economic engine roaring.  Altogether, small ISPs like mine provide fixed wireless broadband services to nearly seven million Americans, helping them thrive and stay safe.  Moreover, we do it in places left behind or ignored by incumbent providers – in the toughest to reach and serve places of the country.  In the digital divide.  
Like the 30 million other small businesses that make America tick, many fixed wireless providers have done it on their own dime.  Bootstrapping every available red cent to bring services to where they weren’t, successfully tapping a market that others won’t touch.  The 2,800 local providers that comprise this small industry are on track to grow nearly 15% more than the prior year in both revenue and subscriber growth.  This trend is not a fluke but has been ongoing for years. 
How can this be when the popular narrative firmly avows that the markets these providers are in – the digital divide – simply can’t be served because there’s no money in them?  That the only answer to connecting the truly unserved are any number of $100 billion subsidy plans currently being considered in Congress to bridge that divide “once and for all” to bring “future proof” internet to unserved Americans?  
It’s got our heads scratching.  Amplex provides over 45 local, good paying jobs with full benefits.  We could not do this if we did not serve our market well.
One such troubling proposal to eradicate the digital divide is the President’s American Jobs Plan.  It includes an ambitious goal of deploying “future proof” broadband infrastructure to 100% of the U.S. population, prioritizing its billions in support for networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives. 
Now, don’t get me wrong.  A number of small fixed wireless providers have recently won government subsidies to help bring service where it was truly infeasible to do so.  It’s highly likely that for any subsequent subsidy programs, we’ll see other fixed wireless providers bid for those subsidies, too.  Maybe even Amplex. 
But the Plan seemingly states “no for-profit companies need apply,” knocking small innovators like mine off the road.  In doing so, it promotes what could only be considered a government-subsidized monopoly, killing off private enterprise.  Not only is this inherently anti-small business, the proposal’s bias for government-sponsored entities will result in less competition, innovation and broadband deployment – the exact opposite of the Administration’s stated goals. 
The Plan’s other central flaw is its focus on building so-called “future proof” networks.    
It is a false economy.
For the Plan, “future proof” means “symmetric” networks.  That is, downstream and upstream traffic speeds are the same.  And while that sounds cool and fashionable, particularly in these “Zoom” days, the Plan devotes $100 billion to “symmetry” which is not what folks want out in the real world.  
A recent independent industry body – BITAG – noted, "Even with the growth in the use of upstream intensive applications such as video conferencing, the downstream-to-upstream traffic ratio is still highly asymmetrical and illustrates that asymmetrical broadband fulfills the requirements for most residential broadband users."  Most all communications networks are asymmetric, because that is how we deliver the best experience for customers who largely prefer to watch Netflix and play video games over uploading terabytes of data to the cloud. (Hint: no one needs to upload terabytes of data to the cloud.)
Broadband analyst Doug Brake puts it this way.  Building symmetric networks with taxpayer dollars is not only expensive, it just doesn’t make sense – “like saying we should invest hundreds of billions of dollars to design our freeways so that cars can drive 600 miles per hour.”
No one needs to drive 600 miles an hour. Ever.
Symmetry is exorbitantly expensive, needlessly boosting costs to taxpayers with little corresponding return.  Further, it is yet another arbitrary factor which removes solutions in the marketplace, clearing the way for prioritized support to broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives who have little experience in running them.  
We service the digital divide.  Companies like Amplex are potent allies in meeting this challenge.  Of bringing new innovation to telehealth, remote learning and schooling, digital democracy, and, yes, even gaming.  America doesn’t have to spend $100 billion to get all Americans online.  Lawmakers could help build universal, real-world “future proof” networks far more efficiently if they:
  • Provide more spectrum for small innovators to quickly and cost-effectively expand coverage;
  • Develop accurately-mapped, targeted subsidy programs that are tech-neutral and which leverage providers already in the marketplace;
  • Ensure nondiscriminatory access to physical infrastructure for small broadband providers; and
  • Allocate more support to boost digital adoption and inclusion. 
These steps will bring about evolutionary broadband networks that are competitive, ubiquitous and adopted by all.  At tens-of-billions of dollars less and years ahead of schedule.  In doing so, they will go the distance toward realizing the President’s call to build jobs and get all Americans online.
Small business gumption and private investment drove broadband to Luckey.  It makes little sense to drive this model away when it has proven itself so worthy to serving the digital divide and helping our economy hum.

Mark Radabaugh is President of Amplex Internet in Luckey, OH, and WISPA's Chairman of the Board.