What should we make of the current struggle between America’s greedy little thieves and its greedy big thieves as they quarrel over the bones of GameStop, Nokia and Blackberry? Hedge fund titan Leon Cooperman claims these Reddit rebels are grasping for an undeserved share of his billions — pirates motivated solely by jealous prejudices against a beneficent aristocracy. Cry me a river, Leon!
If forced to choose a side, my sympathies will always lie with the renegade little thieves. Why should the casino disguised as a stock market — the sacred temple of market capitalism — impartial and infallible, be rigged to shower riches only upon the top tenth of one percent? Do any of these gamblers look like job creators to you? The prediction that both sides in this short selling tug-of-war will inevitably lose their shirts restores my confidence in a just God.
While considering thieves, has it ever struck you as peculiar that political candidates have been promising high-speed, rural broadband every election season for decades? Congress only got serious about funding rural access in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Obama’s stimulus package included a half dozen programs and billions of dollars within the largesse distributed through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).
Once a policy tipping point is reached every member of Congress wants to get some credit for the change. The departments of Commerce, Agriculture and Education, together with the FCC and the NTIA, promptly began ladling out grants like they were soup kitchens. I wrote about the ensuing chaos at the time (2010-13). If there had been even a modicum of oversight and coordination, Colorado would have long ago achieved 100% streaming coverage. At the time, however, the state had not yet created a centralized IT department, much less a broadband office.
As federal agencies were pushing dollars out their doors, the right hand had not the slightest idea what the left was doing. As should have been expected, grantees quickly became competitors — racing against one another to claim the routes most likely to generate high volume data traffic. Not surprisingly, there was duplication and virtually no effort to assure grantees were attempting to serve Colorado’s most remote communities. Something similar occurred during the fiber optic goldrush in the ‘90s when telecom companies built their backbone routes along the Front Range.
Perhaps the most disgraceful of these failed ARRA efforts was EAGLE-NET, an alliance of rural counties assembled by several Obama campaign workers from New England. Not one of them had prior telecommunications experience. They were aware, however, of the impending federal broadband grant bonanza and swiftly carpet-bagged their way to Colorado in hopes of cobbling together an application. With aid from telecommunications attorney and former Arvada Mayor Ken Fellman, they grabbed $100 million to serve rural school districts.
With little more than a letterhead EAGLE-NET hired a fiber contractor to deploy its system on a design-build basis. Two years in, and having burned through $92 million dollars, the NTIA attempted to apply the brakes but intervention proved too late to prevent the collapse of EAGLE-NET underneath a smoking pile of rubble and an ugly bankruptcy. Its remnants were eventually scooped up by Boulder telecom ZAYO. The intended economic development opportunities for rural communities, their schools and hospitals slipped through the cracks.
EAGLE-NET’s largest customer was the not-so-rural Cherry Creek School District, which shows how badly they had missed their target market. This failure didn’t prevent the principals from absconding with enough tax dollars to ensure their successful pursuit of happiness. A second tranche of federal grants, to be distributed through a Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) created in the CARES act, is scheduled to arrive. It took COVID-19 to remind us, whatever the charms of Tik-Tok, remote learning requires streaming internet access for all our students.
Fortunately, Colorado is better positioned in 2021 to steer this effort. Not only do we now have a state broadband office, but Gov. Polis has appointed an oversight committee that is meeting in Zoom room sessions. Approximately 10% of Colorado households still lack broadband access and a geolocation mapping effort is already underway to accurately locate them. This is a necessary, but not a sufficient step.
Congress has resisted broadband block grants administered by each state, which means RDOF grantees will answer to someone in Washington. Having been a budget manager with Mountain Bell, I discovered there are two economic principles governing rural service: (1) it requires a subsidy mechanism, and (2) the resulting infrastructure must be routinely maintained. Republican U.S. Rep. David Schweikert of Arizona pointed out during a recent broadband discussion with The Hill paper that satellite technology offers a cheaper alternative to burying miles of fiber. Remote uplink stations can provide reliable wi-fi connections across scattered or isolated communities. We shouldn’t wait.