RealTime IT News

Stimulus Endgame: House and Senate OK Billions for Broadband

IT and Broadband stimulus

After twin floor debates flush with partisan rancor, the House and Senate today passed the economic stimulus package that would send billions of dollars to broadband expansion and other IT initiatives. President Obama could sign the $787 billion bill into law as early as Monday.

In the Senate, the same three Republicans who broke ranks to support the first version of the bill voted in favor of it again today. The crossover votes of Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania gave the Democrats the 60 votes they needed to pass the stimulus legislation, which supporters expect to create or save more than 3 million jobs.

The bill cleared the lower chamber by a margin of 246 to 183, without a single Republican voting in the affirmative. Seven House Democrats opposed the measure.

The IT provisions in the bill include $7.2 billion for broadband network expansion in rural and underserved areas, as well as $19 billion for health IT initiatives and $4.5 billion for smart-grid technology. It would also allocate $650 million for the government-run program to help consumers pay for the converter boxes they will need to keep older TV sets working once broadcasters shut off analog signals in favor-of all digital transmissions.

The bill is the product of a conference of members of the House and Senate, where negotiators reconciled the versions of the bill passed earlier by each chamber.

In crafting the final language of the broadband portion of the bill, the conference struck provisions from the Senate version that would have offered tax credits to ISPs for building networks with baseline speed requirements. Now, all of the money for broadband in the bill would be allocated in the form of grants and loans. It also does not set minimum speed requirements, but directs the agency administering the bulk of the funding to give priority to network projects that will deliver faster speeds.

The original version of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act also cleared the House without a single Republican vote, and the objections GOP members voiced today mirrored the earlier debate.

Republicans criticized the bill for funneling excessive sums of money to government programs that didn't belong in the stimulus bill. Characterizing many of the measures as earmarks -- a term eschewed in the stimulus debate by Obama and the Democrats -- GOP members blasted the bill for throwing billions of dollars to programs that might be worthwhile, but failed to meet the singular criterion of the stimulus package: creating jobs.

"Facts are stubborn things," Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., said in floor remarks this morning. "The fact is that this stimulus package does more to promote the growth of federal government than it does to create jobs or stimulate our economy."

[cob:Special_Report]Republicans also complained that the more-than 1,000-page conference report was delivered to their offices after midnight this morning, with the final debate and vote scheduled for this afternoon.

"I'm a big believer that we shouldn't come to the floor and talk about process, but bad process leads to bad policy," Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said in floor remarks this afternoon. "And that's what we have here in my view -- bad policy that will drive up the debt and put all of this cost on the back of our kids, our grandkids and their kids."

A boon for the Net neutrality set

The broadband provisions of the stimulus bill represent a significant victory for the advocacy groups championing Net neutrality.

The lion's share of the broadband provisions require the network operators to adhere to "nondiscrimination and network interconnection obligations" that would be determined by the administration overseeing the grants.

Page 2: Where the money goes