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Foes Unite: Google, Telcos Join Broadband Push

Net neutrality and broadband policy
WASHINGTON -- The push for universal broadband just got a shot in the arm.

While previous initiatives have typically been stronger on rhetoric than action, a broad-ranging group -- whose members carry a hefty lobbying clout -- launched yesterday to press the new administration and Congress to craft a national broadband strategy.

The 57 members of the new group -- dubbed A Call to Action for a National Broadband Strategy -- include some unlikely allies. Among them are Google and major telecommunications providers AT&T and Verizon, as well as a diverse group of nonprofit organizations, trade associations, labor unions and others that have not always agreed on matters of technology policy.

But this week, they joined forces to call for making broadband policy a top priority.

"What's important here, in this call to action today, is its timeliness as a new administration comes in," said Jim Cicconi, AT&T's (NYSE: T) senior executive vice president for external and legislative affairs. "What are the priorities for economic recovery for the economic future of this country? I think we're all coming together to say that the national broadband strategy for this nation is an essential component of that."

The announcement of the new coalition, which came during a policy talk here at the Dirksen Senate office building, marked the latest in a recent spate of calls for a hard look at broadband policy on the eve of a new administration. President-elect Obama has already signaled his commitment to advancing tech-policy issues, including accelerating broadband deployment.

But broadband is not an end unto itself, said Rick Whitt, Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) chief telecom counsel.

"From a public-policy perspective, the importance of broadband is not what it is, but what it enables," Whitt said.

A digital panacea?

Broadband evangelists have long said that universal access has the potential to address many of the nation's greatest challenges. According to supporters, broadband-enabled telemedicine and online education could deliver new services and opportunities to remote or underserved areas, while higher speeds and greater availability would enable more people to telecommute rather than drive to work.

Ubiquitous broadband also could pave the way for the so-called smart electrical grid, which would more efficiently dole out power to a new class of Internet-enabled devices, conserving energy and curbing emissions.

Near the top of the long list of problems that advocates say greater broadband access could solve is the perilous condition of the U.S. economy.

Broadband, they argue, is the critical infrastructure for the next phase of economic development, following in the tradition of the railroad, electrical grid and oil pipelines.

For instance, the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, has estimated that each percentage increase in broadband deployment would infuse the U.S. economy with 293,000 jobs.

Just as the government in the past has adopted strategies for earlier infrastructures, the new coalition is urging the incoming administration and Congress to introduce incentives that would spur investment in broadband and drive awareness among consumers of its value.

Piggybacking on a new stimulus package

On the heels of the economy's entry into official recession, A Call to Action's members are asking lawmakers to include measures for building out broadband infrastructure in Congress' second economic stimulus package, expected to emerge next year.

[cob:Special_Report]They also hope to make the case for broadband a matter of competition. Several recent studies have found that the United States is falling behind other countries in per-capita broadband deployment.

Critics have dismissed those reports as a distortion of the real competitive picture, but they sound a loud alarm to the members of the new coalition.

"We talk about global competition -- we're dropping like a rock in terms of Internet speed because in fact we have no national strategy, and we have no national policy," said Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), a labor union whose members work for companies like AT&T and Verizon (NYSE: VZ).

"We need to have a strategy, we need to have goals, and we need to implement them," he said.

One of those goals is discerning how serious the problem is. The government took a step in that direction with the passage of the Broadband Data Improvement Act in September. The bill, signed into law on Oct. 10, directs agencies like the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Census Bureau to adopt a more comprehensive approach to measuring how many Americans have broadband service.

Cohen said the second stimulus package could be an opportunity to secure funding for the measurement mandated by the law.

Page 2: A unified front?