Academics, Execs Signal Need For More Bandwidth, Money For Broadband Research

FCC workshop panelists pitch new research partnerships

Academics at an FCC workshop Monday on broadband research signaled that the country was going to need more bandwidth and money to help support research into broadband.

Charles Bostian, a professor at Virginia Tech and self-described "old radio guy," put in a pitch for spectrum sharing rather than wholesale reclamation of spectrum from other users and for sharing it where it would do the most good, which he argued was not in the band where broadcasters and public safety operations reside.

Bostian said that everybody agrees more spectrum is needed, but that the idea of sharing the so-called "white spaces" in TV channels is not the way to go. He said that instead there needed to be more focus on developing spectrum that could be more easily and efficiently shared, the unlicensed WiFi spectrum for example.

He also said the goal there should not be to avoid all interference, but to manage it.

Vint Cerf, Google's chief Internet evangelist, talked about repurposing, but aimed it at the cable and satellite folks.

He said that both cable--he was including telco services as well--and satellite had huge capacity dedicated to "decreasingly quality video" and, in the case of satellite, to "raining down digital bits."

He said if some of that could be repurposed to "rain down" Internet capacity, "we could be doing some very interesting experiments," pointing out that would require partnerships between private industry and government.

Cable operators have long argued that they would like to use more of their spectrum for advanced services like broadband, but remain yoked to a must-carry model that sucks up bandwidth over which they have no control.

One person pitching a novel government/industry partnership was Chip Elliot, chief engineer at BBN Technologies. He argued for requiring any broadband deployment using government funds to be research-enabled, meaning that researchers would get to share it for experimental purposes.

There was much talk of collaboration at the workshop. There is even a term for it, "collaboratories," where broadband is not only the goal of the research, but the vehicle as well.

For that to happen, several panelists argued, the networks need to be as ubiquitous and robust as possible so that researchers and scientists around the world can work together.

All this will take money, which is in relatively short supply.

It will mostly have to come from government, panelists said, because venture capital tends to be aimed at the short-term horizon and tied to commercial viability in that short term.

David Clark, senior research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and like Cerf, an Internet pioneer, agreed that industry must be responsive to Wall Street pressures and would not be going out on a limb when it came to research. He pointed to the decreased margins in the phone business that "chased Bell Labs out of the business."

The cable industry has an ally in Clark when it comes to where the focus of the broadband rollout should be. He said at the workshop that the country did not have a deployment problem as much as it did an adoption problem.

He also said the industry should not "flagellate" itself over stats that show other countries' research investments. Some of that could be posturing when it comes to wireless, he said. Some of the investments internationally are with private-public partnerships into short-term projects for that same reason of meeting industry needs.

He said there were strengths in the U.S.'s National Science Foundation funding that doesn't have to get a return on day one.