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?
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A unified front?
Part of what may be holding the U.S. back is a definition of terms. The CWA runs a Web site called SpeedMatters.org, which champions connection speed as an essential ingredient of the broadband shortfall and calls for the FCC to boost its minimum benchmark for broadband service, currently set at 768 Kbps for download traffic.
Cohen’s group supports a plan advanced by Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.V., to aim for speeds of 10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream for everyone in America by 2010.
The new coalition isn’t making such specific recommendations, however.
Instead, it offers a list of five broadly drawn goals, such as providing every American with affordable access to a high-speed broadband connection, and enacting policies to stimulate private investment and consumer adoption of broadband.
The vague language reflects some of the still-unresolved differences of the coalition’s members.
“There are important principles in these goals that reflect the fact that we don’t yet have full consensus on how to reach those goals, but we’re getting to an evolved sense of what those goals should be,” said Jim Baller, a principal at the Baller Herbst Law Group who was instrumental in organizing the coalition.
The less controversial part of the group’s policy paper calls for courting private-sector investment and consumer adoption to tackle the broadband deficiency on both the supply and demand sides.
According to the policy paper, tax incentives, grants and subsidies from the FCC’s Universal Service Fund could encourage providers to build out more robust networks. Fresh approaches to spectrum allocation could lead to affordable access to innovative new networks.
On the demand side, the coalition calls for all levels of government to take a leading role in educating Americans about the value of high-speed broadband connections — and teaching the skills to use them.
For those still without computers, the coalition suggests that federal programs, grants and subsidies could help ensure that all Americans have access to the basic equipment.
[cob:Pull_Quote]However, the members’ consensus could break down over the ever-controversial issue of Net neutrality, the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally by network operators — a concept that’s sometimes known as the third-rail of technology policy.
The policy paper splits the middle on Net neutrality, declaring that “access to the Internet should, to the maximum feasible extent, be open to all users service providers, content providers and application providers.”
Then, the next line reads: “Network operators must have the right to manage their networks responsibly, pursuant to clear and workable guidelines and standards.”
Walking that tightrope may have helped to bring outspoken Net neutrality advocates such as Google and the media-reform group Free Press under the same umbrella with AT&T and organizations like the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, both hardened foes of network neutrality laws.
“I think the endgame of an open, generative Internet is what unites us here,” Google’s Whitt said. “What may divide us in certain measures down the road is how to get there.”
Comcast, the cable provider recently rebuked by the FCC for how it managed traffic on its network, did not sign the group’s policy paper.
A Call to Action is certainly not the first broadband-themed policy initiative. For this one to succeed where others have failed, the signatories realize that they need to follow up with more targeted objectives once the new administration takes shape and the next Congress convenes.
“Setting up a [policy] framework implies that we’ll fill in that framework at some time,” said Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press.
To that end, the group plans to hold another event in the spring to announce more specific policy proposals, assuming they can get past the Net neutrality hurdle.