‘Tis the Season Part II: Broadband Stimulus

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to meet with representatives of the Presidental Transition’s FCC review team and a few like-minded public interest organizations to talk about what a broadband stimulus package should look like. The main question: if Congress allocates some stimulus money for broadband-related purposes, what would we propose to do with it and what would those proposals accomplish for the economy and our national broadband infrastructure? While a number of great ideas were discussed which would stimulate investment and create jobs, there were some underlying themes which we think any plan should embody: infrastructure improvement, competition, and openness.

Infrastructure Improvement: Any stimulus plan should give incentives (of whatever form) for actually improving the nation’s broadband infrastructure beyond where it would be without government intervention. This means that money should not be spent on maintaining current Internet connections or investing in “network management” techniques which do not actually get faster or new pipes to homes and which create few new jobs. Rather, getting our broadband to globally competitive speeds should be encouraged, with the most support going to those who will build out of new, fast pipes to people who have no access at all. And of course, participation in a stimulus program should require regular ISP disclosure of mapping data on speed, availability, and subscriptions in order to determine where improvements are needed and whether participants have actually made the improvements they claim.

Competition: Real competition in the broadband space would have far-reaching effects, including job creation, lower prices, and increased speeds. Unfortunately, with over 98% of Americans using cable or DSL (as of 2006), we don’t have real competition. A stimulus package should encourage buildout which fosters competition. Greater incentives should go to players who are going to create new networks which compete with existing ones rather than incumbents who simply increase the speed of current deployments. Barriers to entry for new ISPs – such as laws prohibiting municipal networks – should be removed. And participants should be required to make their connections available to competitive ISPs at reasonable, nondiscriminatory rates, restoring some of the competition which was lost with the death of line sharing.

Openness: All participants in a stimulus package should be required to offer open, nondiscriminatory Internet access. This means abiding both by the four principles of the FCC’s broadband policy statement as well as a fifth nondiscrimination principle. Likewise, participating ISPs should have to follow the Carterfone principle, and allow innovators to build and users to attach any device which does not directly harm the network. Hopefully the FCC will make sure these rules apply across the board, but until then, we do not want the federal government to be funding discriminatory, filtered, or walled-garden style pseudo-Internet access.

The U.S. is ranked roughly 15th worldwide in broadband adoption. To fix this, we need to combine 1) improving access by getting real broadband to unserved and underserved areas with 2) improving adoption rates through education and price-lowering competition. A well-crafted broadband stimulus package can be the keystone of this effort.

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