RealTime IT News

Battle Lines Drawn in Broadband Stimulus Debate

WASHINGTON -- For the wide array of groups that have been calling for the government to take action to spur broadband deployment, the bill introduced Thursday in the House that would allocate $6 billion in stimulus money to that goal was welcome news.

But there remains a lively debate as to just how that money should be used.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act would seek to kick-start the nation's tattered economy with $825 billion in government spending and tax cuts spread across a variety of initiatives, including clean energy, transportation infrastructure and education. Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey (D-WI) introduced the bill as a "crucial first step in a concerted effort to create and save 3 [million] to 4 million jobs."

The Senate has yet to produce its own version of a stimulus package, but Republicans in both chambers quickly criticized House Democrats, both for acting unilaterally in crafting the bill and for favoring direct spending over tax incentives.

On Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is scheduled to begin marking up the bill in a full committee hearing that could see contentious debate. The committee will consider the portions of the bill that fall within its jurisdiction, which will likely include the broadband measures.

Here at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, representatives of several groups that have been lobbying Obama's transition team on broadband stimulus offered their critiques of the House bill, variously praising it for aiming to help bridge the digital divide, and urging modifications to ensure that the money is used most effectively.

The battle lines they outlined could very well end up a preview of Thursday's hearing.

A central rift in the debate concerns the extent to which Congress should attach conditions, such as minimum connection speeds and open network requirements, to the money it would disperse to ISPs to build broadband networks in underserved or unserved areas.

Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington think tank focused on technology policy, warned against using the stimulus bill to try to overhaul the ways that ISPs manage their networks.

"We have got to focus on what this is all about. This is not about broadband reform -- this is about stimulus," Atkinson said. "Stimulus has to have one goal, and that is to get as much investment in as fast a time as possible."

The proposed bill contains provisions that would require ISPs to open access to the networks created with the stimulus money, but it does not clarify what open access would entail. It could fall along the lines of the Net neutrality principle of non-discriminatory network operation, or it could go a step further and require ISPs to sell smaller providers access to their networks at a wholesale cost.

"Underserved" defined.

As with other key terms such as "underserved" and "unserved," the bill calls on the Federal Communications Commission to provide definitions 45 days after it is signed into law.

Some of the panelists called for a strong stance on openness, seeing an opportunity to further solidify Net neutrality as the law of the land and ensure that the infrastructure created through the stimulus is put to maximum use. After all, the public is paying for the build-out, so shouldn't the resulting networks be designed to serve the public interest?

But Atkinson warned that broadband-reform conditions are "inversely correlated" with network build-out. Open access rules and steep speed requirements could deter some ISPs from participating in the stimulus programs at all, he warned, urging that the bill do as much as it can to encourage all providers to build as much infrastructure as possible in 2009.

S. Derek Turner, research director for the media reform group Free Press, dismissed Atkinson's proposals as overly sympathetic to the incumbent cable and telecom providers. Those industries, long-time opponents of Net neutrality legislation, are likely to fight to remove provisions that would make stimulus funds contingent on certain network-management practices.

"We want to be building the kind of networks that led to the Internet being what it is today, and that is primarily because the network is open and a platform of innovation," Turner said. "I am very glad that the concepts of openness are in this legislation, and I hope it's not something that gets stripped out in the name of compromise."

While Free Press has an ambitious agenda for broadband reform, Turner said the group is pragmatic enough not to expect the stimulus to tackle issues such as intervening to make the ISP market more competitive. But the open-access conditions that are so central to the Net neutrality agenda are what made the Internet such a dynamic engine of the economy, Turner said. And the primary goal of the stimulus, after all, is to create jobs.

(Next page: What's the right funding model?)