Fractious Panel Praises Broadband Stimulus

SILVER SPRING, MD — Even though the $7.2 billion broadband stimulus will not deliver broadband to everyone in the United States, it will achieve its goals, said experts at the Freedom
to Connect
conference yesterday in a panel called How to Get and Spend $7,200,000,000.00 and more: What the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 means for Netheads.

First and foremost, they said, it is a significant change from the policies of the previous administration’s belief in the primacy of markets. “We are turning away from what I believe was a misguided effort to restructure the economy along the lines of selfishness: I’ve got mine and if you don’t have yours, that’s too bad for you because it’s how the market works,” said Harold Feld, legal director of consumer lobby Public Knowledge.

Jim Baller of the Baller Herbst Law Group, a pro-competition lawyer, said he was thrilled that the United States at last a congressional mandate to develop a national broadband strategy within a year — a measure he has been advocating for years. He noted that the details are being shaped, but the goals are clear.

“It is a wonderful act on so many levels,” said Baller. “It provides for transport, smart grids, health care, construction, safety, housing, energy efficiency and housing retrofits.”

Feld said that for the first time, disparate parts of government are working together. “With a coherent national policy, government is not broken into many tiny little fiefdoms. It’s a significant shift from the past eight years — even from the past 20 to 30 years.”

Baller said that this is just the start. He said that Obama’s point man in explaining the stimulus, Blair Levin, said that the stimulus act is not the solution to our economic problems, but the first step.

Tom Cohen of fiber lobby Fiber to the Home Council and the law firm Kelly
Drye & Warren LLP
said that the act requires the government to move faster than it is accustomed to.

“Lots of details are still being worked out,” he said. “Anyone who has worked with the FCC knows that it usually takes three to six months to get a Notice of Funds Availability (NOFA) after the comments are in, and the act requires that the FCC do it in 30 days!”

In the audience, Tim Nulty of the East Central Vermont Community Fiber Network, said that the Rural Utilities Service, which controls $2.5 billion of the stimulus, won’t make up its mind about much until the NOFA is published on June 10, 2009.

Disagreeing about goals

Baller said that the bill cannot just be about fiber. “As much as we would like to see it, we won’t lay fiber everywhere.”

But Joanne Hovis of CTC Communications and the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA), said that the only technology worth considering is fiber because older technologies such as wireless and DSL just don’t do enough.

Hovis said, and a quick poll of the audience confirmed, that anyone getting
1.5Mbps downstream and 200Kbps upstream is underserved. She said that in order to compete with the rest of the world, the United States needs fiber speeds. She noted that the standard speed in Amsterdam is 100Mbps symmetrical and said that wireless and DSL cannot provide those speeds. She added that Amsterdam has plans to move to 1Gbps and then to 10Gbps.

Next page: Cities or the countryside?

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Hovis further warned that people are already arguing over whether the money should be spent in cities or in the countryside. “Over the course of hearings during the past few weeks,” she said, “I have seen a rural versus metropolitan debate. There is a justifiable feeling on part of many that should not go to suburban or urban areas before everyone in rural areas are served.”

She also said the pile of cash is smaller than it may appear. “There’s not enough money in the bill to serve all the unserved rural areas or to serve all the unserved urban areas. We cannot do any one thing. We can do many small things.”

A fight benefits the status quo and harms an opportunity for change. “I am concerned, though, that a fight among and between us serves none of our purposes. It serves the purposes of those who would prefer not to see competition. The interests who hate competition would prefer to see broadband only in the most remote areas,” said Hovis.

Everybody could win

Baller said that even those who don’t get money could benefit because the bill encourages entities that could work together but aren’t to start working together. “It encourages people to think cooperatively. The communications field is a series of silos but doesn’t have to be. Even if they don’t get funded, there will be value in bringing diverse stakeholders together.”

Feld said that the act proves the power of consumer activism. “We have proven that it’s possible to do business here in Washington DC. The traditional wisdom about how DC works and about how little we can do turned out to be wrong.”

Vested interests have been put on notice, Feld said. “I don’t want the incumbents to die,” he said. “I just want them to have to work for a living. The act sends a strong message to carriers: it’s not about you any more.”

The act assumes that broadband provides benefits to a whole community, creating a new ecology. “For years, the debate has been about incenting the market and getting carriers to invest,” Feld said. “Entities that were despised in yesteryear — and I mean literally last year — such as state and local entities and non-profits are now presumed to be most in tune with the philosophy of a broadband ecology.”

“It’s not just about delivering TV and squeezing every dime out of the local community,” agreed Hovis. “The act recognizes that local entities understand a set of local needs and concerns that corporate headquarters located far away do not.”

There is a tremendous amount of uncertainty but the speakers were eager to move forward. “I cannot wait for next year to talk about how this year worked out,” said Baller.

Update corrects comments by Baller.

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