Microsoft Joining Broadband Initiative

Microsoft has joined forces with a host of advocacy groups to form a new organization dedicated to promoting broadband access in community anchor institutions.

The Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition, launched today, plans to press policy makers to deliver high-speed Internet access to public facilities that support activities such as distance learning and telemedicine.

“We’re in a tough economic period and it’s important to the extent that resources are spent, they’re spent in a cost-effective way,” Paula Boyd, Microsoft’s regulatory counsel, told reporters this morning. “It’s really important that the focus be on anchor institutions.”

The new coalition is the latest blip in a flurry of activity on the broadband policy front since Congress earmarked $7.2 billion of economic stimulus funds for driving high-speed connectivity.

John Windhausen, group’s coordinator, said the coalition is not planning to apply for a grant through the stimulus program, but rather will serve in an advisory capacity to communities looking to wire up their public institutions and advocate for the cause.

“The purpose of this coalition is to raise the visibility of these anchor institutions and their needs for broadband,” Windhausen said. “These institutions serve the most vulnerable segments of our population.”

In addition to providing public access to broadband connections, the coalition envisions its work as a springboard for greater access for consumers.

Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Program at the New America Foundation, said the coalition aims to “turn anchor institutions into technology hubs.” The coalition envisions networks with open interconnection requirements that would allow commercial providers to tap into the infrastructure and deploy residential broadband, a scenario Calabrese said “benefits every consumer twice over.”

On its face, the idea of diverting stimulus dollars and other public funds to schools, libraries and medical facilities is an appealing one. Broadband in schools could give students access to courses taught in far-away facilities. Greater access in libraries would make the Internet available to people who don’t have a connection at home. And in health care, robust connectivity would enable swift transmission of high-resolution images and allow specialists to treat patients in remote facilities.

At the same time, the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition is competing with innumerable other groups that have their own vision for how the government should prioritize its digital agenda. Earlier this week, the Federal Communications Commission closed its window for public comment on how it should formulate a national broadband strategy, a directive of the economic stimulus bill.

The agencies that will be distributing the stimulus money are expected to publish their guidelines for grant application later this month, and award the first tranche of funding by the end of the year.

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