Scenarios for a National Broadband Policy

Posted by Content Coordinator on Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Communications and Society Program
David Bollier

This report is written from the perspective of an informed observer at the Twenty-Fourth Annual Aspen Institute Conference on Communications Policy.  Unless attributed to a particular person, none of the comments or ideas contained in this report should be taken as embodying the views or carrying the endorsement of any specific participant at the Conference.


As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of February 2009, Congress tasked the Federal Communications Commission with developing a National Broadband Plan. The mandate for the Plan was to outline policies and goals to achieve universal access and adoption of affordable, high-speed broadband capabilities. This Broadband Plan has the potential to transform access to a range of resources and services that constitute the new broadband ecology, including telemedicine, the energy grid, education, e-government, public safety and homeland security, among many others.

But with changing financial markets and new technological advances, the long-term outlook of new broadband policies is uncertain. What are the indicators that might suggest policies need to change? What are the long-term implications for consumers and the industry?

To answer some of these questions, in August 2009, the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, a non-partisan, non-ideological, non-profit organization, convened 31 experts and leaders in communications policy from government, business, academia, and the non-profit sector in Aspen, Colorado for the twenty-fourth annual Aspen Institute Communications Policy Conference. The purpose of the Conference was to explore current broadband policy by using the scenario building process. We sought to understand signposts of trends that might alert policy-makers when their policies are going in a particular direction, and to suggest how to avoid certain adverse effects.

Many of the recommendations included in the National Broadband Plan would be based on current or past data. So we determined that the scenario building process could be a useful tool for thinking about longer-term impacts. Accordingly, participants mapped a series of imaginary scenarios of how the economy and society might evolve in the future, with informed speculation about the implications for broadband policy.

The four broadband scenarios developed by participants during the conference were set on axes of broadband supply and broadband demand. Thus they foresee how we might get to each of the possibilities (high demand/high supply; low demand/high supply, etc.), and suggest policy considerations to contend with issues that rise within each scenario. Listed below, each scenario was given the name of a popular film that suggests the essence of the situation.

1. High demand coupled with low supply, or Oliver! This scenario describes a situation in which there is inadequate private investment in broadband despite a significant demand for it. While that seems unlikely, the group describes how that could come about and what to look for as it might be happening. Telecommunications policy could be a potentially important tool to increase the low supply through measures to improve “last mile” and “middle mile” connections to people’s homes, and by helping broadband move to wireless, mobile devices.

2. High demand coupled with high supply, or The Big Easy. In this highly desirable world of plentiful broadband and robust consumer demand, problems could arise in managing the pace of growth, short-term disruptions and long-term stability. The signposts of this scenario are stable and thriving markets, a diverse array of innovative, high-quality content and applications, robust technological and business innovation, citizen participation and thriving capital markets.

3. Low demand coupled with low supply, or Batman Returns. The most dystopian of the visions, in this scenario insufficient broadband demand creates a vicious cycle of poor broadband supply. Under financial pressure, major network operators spin off unattractive assets, leaving many geographic areas with inadequate service. Other portions of the country are served by low-quality, economically weak providers, and major operators face increasing competition for a shrinking pool of high-revenue customers.

4. Low demand coupled with high supply, or Final Fantasy. This scenario suggests that the over-abundant broadband supply was caused by irrational exuberance in the market, leading to short-term market inefficiencies and bubbles. The government may also have over-stimulated investment by providing too many incentives, or there may have been exogenous shocks to the broadband market. The group proposes a variety of solutions to the excessive supply problem—including the need to develop better measurement systems to monitor actual demand.

At the end of the report, our rapporteur, journalist and author David Bollier, summarizes some of the common threads running through each of the scenarios. These include attention to digital inclusion Scenarios for a National Broadband Policy Foreword issues; the need to stimulate demand, possibly through e-governance; and the need to develop reliable metrics. The Report also sets forth six questions that participants believe the Omnibus Broadband Initiative should address and a number of policies for consideration by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to stimulate broadband demand.


There is wide consensus that broadband technologies are likely to play a critical role in the future of the American economy, government services, social life, education, medicine and democracy. Already, a burgeoning array of software applications, computing functions and mobile devices are exploiting the high-speed, high-volume “pipes.” Diverse sectors of the economy and society are likely to become highly dependent on broadband services.

Congress has appropriated more than $7 billion in the federal economic stimulus program for broadband development, leading many people to wonder how exactly this money will be spent. Some critics charge that policymakers are in “ready, fire, aim” mode, instead of developing a clear definition of broadband or a coherent strategy for deploying it in the years ahead.

To help sort through the complexities of these issues, and to think about them with a fresh perspective, the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program convened thirty-one leading experts on broadband policy in Aspen, Colorado, from August 12 to 15, 2009. The gathering was the 24th annual Aspen Institute Conference on Communications Policy. Participants included representatives from cable system operators, telecommunications companies, software and computer companies, government agencies, policy think tanks, academia, consumer advocacy organizations and foundations.

The key question that the conference sought to address:

How can we develop a broadband world that grows the economy, provides opportunity and enhances the quality of life for everyone, improves the environment, and fosters democracy?

The conference began with two general overviews about the state of broadband deployment and usage today. But the heart of the conference was the development of four imaginary scenarios of how the economy and society might evolve in the future, and the implications for broadband policy.

Participants divided into four working groups, each of which explored the “signposts” of trends that might alert policymakers that a given scenario was in fact materializing. The groups also identified how certain trends—economic, political, cultural, and technological—might require specific types of government policy intervention or action.

A group as diverse as this one obviously could not come to a full consensus about the best public policies to achieve these goals. Yet the four scenarios, and the spirited dialogue within each and amongst the full group, elicited many penetrating insights. They also yielded a general agreement that certain government actions will be necessary: programs to foster universal service, better government use of broadband for its own services and procurement, effective policies to stimulate broadband demand, and better training in the use of computers and digital devices.

Charles M. Firestone, Executive Director of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, moderated the three-day gathering. Rapporteur David Bollier prepared the following interpretive summary of the conference to convey the salient themes, conclusions and recommendations.

View full version (PDF): Scenarios for a National Broadband Policy

About The Aspen Institute
The Aspen Institute mission is twofold: to foster values-based leadership, encouraging individuals to reflect on the ideals and ideas that define a good society, and to provide a neutral and balanced venue for discussing and acting on critical issues.”

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2 Responses to “Scenarios for a National Broadband Policy”

  1. Charlie Firestone says:

    Delighted you posted this, and hope people will link to the full report. Just one correction, if possible. The tag for our Program should read “Communications and Society Program” not “Communities and Society…” Small issue, but might as well be correct.
    Again, thanks for posting.

  2. Content Coordinator says:

    All fixed – thanks for letting me know!

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