FTTH and Jobs, NSN and Opportunity

One of the recurring claims in the modern world of networking is that broadband and the Internet create jobs, improve overall health, education, etc.  The latest manifestation of that focuses on FTTH, and it was a recurring theme at BBWF.  The question is important because broadband in many areas depends on public-policy subsidization, and without some clear public benefit that kind of thing is increasingly difficult to promote.  So what’s the truth?

Let’s start with a lesson in causality versus correlation.  I heard this morning that kids who go to bed and get up early are less likely to be obese.  The statistical relationship here is clear, but it’s not clear that there is a causal effect.  That means that by making your kid go to bed and get up early, you’re not likely to make them less obese.  Sedentary habits and obesity may have a common cause, not be causally linked in themselves.

A lot of the studies I’ve seen on broadband and FTTH have that same issue.  Somebody will point out that homes with high-speed broadband have higher incomes, or have kids with better College Board scores.  The latest point is that households with FTTH are more likely to start a home business.  All of this to prove that broadband is good for us.  It may well be, but these stories don’t prove it.

People with high incomes are more likely to have broadband, and to have fast broadband, because they have more money to spend.  Their kids are better educated because the parents are, and can afford to send them.  People with FTTH likely live in high-income suburbs because that’s who’s targeted by ISPs for FTTH; you need a high ROI.  Those same people, with better skills and education, are more likely to start their own businesses.

Digging through data on broadband deployment and income from the FCC and the BEA, Census Bureau, etc. I cannot find any correlation between any surveyed aspect of broadband and a growth in jobs, an improvement in skills, a brighter or better-educated set of children.  I believe from my own Internet use that for those who are inclined to use the information resources available online, the Internet and broadband are enormously powerful tools.  But I also believe that using similar data in a public library were and are powerful means of gaining insight and knowledge.  Availability doesn’t imply consumption, though.  I’ve seen dozens of cases—including this debate—where available online information has been either ignored or the researchers weren’t aware it existed—yet it was there.

The great majority of broadband is used for entertainment, and that’s the truth.  That’s where the capacity goes, why the service is purchased.  People watch stupid pet tricks, chat with their friends or look at social-network updates.  They are, for the most part, no more likely to learn new skills or start new businesses based on broadband than they were based on the availability of libraries.

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t subsidize it.  We don’t make 911 calls most of the time and yet we have universal service rules because everyone might need to make one.  And entertainment isn’t something for the rich or the geographically fortunate only.  Which is what bothers me here.  It’s not enough that we get an answer that we want, or get the right answer.  We have to get the answer in the form we want it.  We have to believe something that’s certainly not provable and likely isn’t even true, to base our decisions on, rather than just to accept reality.

Accepting reality may be something Nokia and Siemens are finally prepared to do with NSN.  The two parent companies are both kicking in new capital, refreshing the leadership suite, and generally working harder to make the joint venture a success.  That’s good because NSN is the most up-and-coming of all of the non-Asian telecom equipment players.  It’s a company that has seen its strategic influence rise noticeably over the last year, that has improved its positioning and articulation, and that offers its parents (frankly) better growth prospects than the parents themselves could hope for.



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