Groups recommend rules for broadband grants

Government agencies tasked with handing out about US$7 billion in broadband deployment grants over the next couple of years should provide competition in areas where existing services are lacking and should give priority to local broadband providers over national ones, some broadband advocates said Monday.

Spending the money fast to stimulate the U.S. economy isn't the only consideration for the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture when allocating the funds, part of a huge economic stimulus package passed by the U.S. Congress in mid-February, said representatives of Free Press and the Open Internet Coalition.

The nation is headed into an "extraordinary period where the government is directly investing in broadband infrastructure," said Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, a media reform group. "This process of handing out $7 billion, although there's a great deal of urgency to get the money out the door, must fundamentally be data driven. We need to make sure the money is spent wisely, on projects that deliver the biggest bang for the buck for the American taxpayer."

Scott also called on the government to fund high-speed networks, not just basic broadband. "We're concerned that stimulus dollars not be used to build obsolete networks," he said. "If we want to make sure that ... we're not simply re-creating a digital divide by building a substandard network that then has to take another leap to catch up."

Scott's comments came a day before the NTIA, RUS and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission will host a public meeting in Washington, D.C., to discuss how the broadband grants should be distributed. Free Press also published a report Monday outlining some recommendations for the broadband money.

Asked whether the money should go into areas that already have broadband, Scott and other broadband advocates at the press conference suggested that in some cases, it might be appropriate. While large broadband providers have argued that the government shouldn't compete with private companies, large telecom companies have long gotten U.S. government subsidies, said Chip Pickering, a former Republican U.S. representative from Mississippi.

Government policy and deployment subsidies have helped large telecom carriers build their networks over the last 80 years, Pickering said.

If, for example, two broadband carriers offer very slow speed broadband in an area, the new money should be available for additional competition, Scott added. If broadband is offered in a low-income area, but few people can afford the prices charged, the new broadband money could subsidize customers' broadband bills or help create a new lower-cost service, he added.

Scott and Pickering also suggested local companies or community-based groups should be given chances to win the broadband grants. The NTIA and RUS will have to consider different proposals, and in extremely rural areas, "having a local provider that's committed to ... serving that community on a sustainable basis will have just as good a chance as a large commercial operator," Scott said.

A carrier being local should be "a factor to their advantage," Pickering added.

Other broadband advocates have called for the agencies to get the stimulus money out as quickly as possible so that the U.S. economy improves faster.

The agencies should take a "prudent minimalist approach" to putting regulations on the broadband money, said Randolph May, president of the Free State Foundation, a conservative think tank.

"Funds should be targeted predominantly to unserved areas presently lacking any broadband service," he wrote in an e-mail. "This approach is minimalist in the sense that trying to do more is likely to be less impactful and more wasteful. Figuring out which areas meet an 'underserved' criterion and how to disburse funds in a way that efficiently addresses such 'underservedness' is a much more difficult task than identifying areas without service and directing funds to a provider to serve those areas."

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