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Another Charge up the Hill for Broadband Policy

Regardless of who wins the presidency in November, change is on its way to Washington.

In that spirit, the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA) has unfurled a campaign to press for policies that will speed the development of broadband networks, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that every American has access to a high-speed Internet connection.

"We start from the belief that broadband is integral to solving the big national challenges," IIA cofounder and cochairman Bruce Mehlman told InternetNews.com. "We want to get as many voices echoing that sentiment as possible. There's a lot of alignment on the need for ubiquitous broadband and faster broadband and competitive broadband."

If that language sounds familiar, it should.

The four-year-old IIA's renewed push for national broadband policy follows the last month's launch of the InternetforEveryone.org, a coalition that includes technology companies and advocacy groups who also warn of the digital divide and the United States' slipping position in broadband access. Those concerns intensified following a recent report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a multinational economic forum, that ranked the United States as No. 15 in average broadband speed among the 30 countries it measured.

The IIA's latest efforts revisit the contentious issue of "exaflood," or the concern that the explosion in rich-data content such as voice and video threatens to overwhelm the Internet's capacity in the coming years. That argument gained some traction in November from a controversial study by the research group Nemertes, which concluded that broadband access could be significantly impaired by 2010 without a global investment in network capacity of $137 billion.

The IIA, which distributed and promoted that research, argues that the coming data crush that exaflood will bring demands that the government adopt an incentive-based approach in its telecom policy to ensure that ISPs invest in building out the capacities of their networks.

While Nemertes explicitly stated that the Internet's self-correcting architecture would not let it "break," the research firm's warning of data outpacing capacity has become a favorite argument of the ISPs against any proposed Net neutrality legislation or regulation policy. They claim that overall transmission speeds will suffer if they are stripped of the right to manage their networks by blocking or slowing certain traffic, such as bandwidth intensive applications used by a few users that slow down the overall network experience by users.

In a blog post, Free Press Campaign Director Timothy Karr lashed out at the report and the media coverage it sparked, pointing out that Nemertes is heavily funded by telecom companies and suggesting that the report was crafted as a lobbying tool. Karr called the report an example of "astroturfing," a term referring to a PR ploy masquerading as a grassroots campaign.

"These types of studies often boil down to pure posturing and polemic against Net neutrality, bought and paid for by AT&T," Karr wrote. "When researchers stumble across inconvenient points, such as the current boom in infrastructure investment, they dismiss them in favor of doomsday scenarios and call for an end to the one rule that allows online users to innovate without permission."

The authors of the Nemertes report disputed Karr's charges, claiming that the research was independent, not commissioned. They emphatically rejected the assertion that Nemertes is in the pocket of the telecom industry.

Asked for comment on the IIA's latest initiative, Free Press Policy Director Ben Scott told InternetNews.com in an e-mail that, "We are very pleased to see that leaders from across the sector are uniting around a commitment to universal, affordable access to the Internet."

Scott, who is traveling out of the country, declined to comment on the potential clash between Free Press and the IIA in crafting a broadband policy.

Asked about the issue, Mehlman took a conciliatory tone.

"I think there is plenty of alignment, and I think they're an important voice at the table," he said of Free Press.

Part of that alignment is the belief that the broadband market should be competitive. Like Free Press, the IIA envisions a country where every American has a choice among affordable broadband providers, though Mehlman admits that he doesn't have an answer as to how to ensure that multiple providers reach the nation's rural and remote areas.

"I don't know what the final product is going to look like," he said, but he spoke admiringly about ConnectKentucky, a public-private partnership begun in 2002 to conduct broadband mapping and spread deployment throughout a state where high-speed access had been lagging. Critics charge that the program overstates its accomplishments, and that it effectively became a sweetheart deal for AT&T (then Bell South) and other incumbent ISPs.

The incentive-based approach that Mehlman favors would see the government act to encourage -- not regulate -- ISPs to innovate and build out their networks. Asked about what a prudent policy might look like, his first answer is to cut the taxes on telecom providers, which he claims are matched only by the levies collected on tobacco, alcohol and gambling.

"We continue to treat telecom like a luxury and tax it like a sin," he said.

A self-described economic conservative, Mehlman also advocates a deregulatory policy that would strip away some of the anti-monopoly restrictions that date back to the emergence of the cable industry and the AT&T breakup.

Before cofounding the IIA and the Washington public affairs consultancy Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, Mehlman served as Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Technology Policy under President George W. Bush.

The other cochairman of the IAA is Larry Irving, who served as a top telecom advisor and Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information under the Clinton administration.

The IAA is officially nonpartisan, and Mehlman said that the group will not endorse either candidate in the presidential election.

Mehlman said his group has lobbied on policy issues in the past, and that he expects to do so in the future, though he said it has recently been focused more on evangelizing broadband around the country.

"We've been communicating outside the Beltway more than inside the Beltway this year," he said.

To further that mission, the IIA has appointed so-called "broadband ambassadors" to talk up the importance of a national broadband policy and promote digital literacy. The ambassadors, who are not IIA members, include TiVo CEO Tom Rogers, and Brian Mefford, CEO of ConnectedNation, the national organization that grew out of ConnectKentucky.