The long road to more and hopefully better broadbandgot big boosts this week as the House and Senate agreed on the compromise economic recovery package. The compromise was passed by the House on Friday. If it passes the Senate, as was expected later Friday, it will be sent to President Obama for his signature.
GigaOm's Stacey Higginbotham does a good job of describing the broadband elements of the package. The total is $7.2 billion. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), part of The Department of Commerce, will control $4.7 billion and The Rural Utilities Service of the Department of Agriculture will handle the $2.5 billion balance. Tax credits and speed requirements were stricken from the final bill. Grants, which must contain an open access requirment, must be made by September 30, 2010. The bill sets aside $350 million for the NTIA to create a database on broadband penetration.
Not everybody is enamored with the overall stimulus package. Neither the House version of the measure nor the final bill garnered any Republican votes. Only three members of the GOP voted for the Senate version. BroadbandCensus reports on a National Press Club presentation on Thursday in which Republicans ranted about the bill. About half the report details the perceived shortcomings of its broadband element. Citizens Against Government Waste president Thomas Schatz said that broadband should have been handled in a separate bill altogether. Along with legitimate questions on the allocation mechanisms, Schatz questions whether broadband is a long- or short-term project. He thinks that it is long-term and should not be included in a short-term stimulus package. Schatz also opposes the open access provisions in the bill.
This Industry Standard piece echoes those thoughts. Barbara Esbin, the director of the Center for Communications and Competition Policy at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, also questioned why broadband was addressed. She said that there is no market failure or lack of private investment in broadband. Therefore, government intrusion is unjustified, she said. On a different point, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation president Rob Atkinson bemoaned the removal of tax incentives in favor of reliance on grants and loans. This, he said, will delay the intended stimulation because grant programs take time to set up.
Despite its reputation for stodginess and boring speeches, Congress provides flashes of drama. For broadband advocates, the fate of Net neutrality in the final bill was such a case. Obsessable reports that there were rumors right up until the bill was released that Senator Feinstein (D.-Calif.) would insert language mandating "reasonable network management." Proponents of such rules argue that they are necessary to ensure smooth operation and to catch copyrighted material and illegal content such as child pornography. Others say that a parallel goal is to establish a system enabling network operators to favor one content producer over another. In any case, the site reports that the language wasn't inserted because of time pressure to finish the legislation. The omission isn't final, however. The piece says it is possible that it can be inserted later.
The stimulus was a necessary step. Commentators, such as Atkinson and those on both sides of the Net neutrality debate, can raise legitimate questions about what is or isn't in the bill. Those who condemn even dealing with the broadband issue, however, are playing political games at a very dangerous time in our financial history. These are folks who adhere to philosophies that got us into this mess in the first place.
Schatz's criticism, apparently, was that the broadband program is slated for a number of years and therefore doesn't qualify as "short-term." The point is that the broadband element of the stimulus will create jobs and do so quickly. Period. In fact, it will do so in two ways. The first hired, of course, will be the people who build the equipment and construct and operate the networks. Once broadband is available, new jobs-such as home-based customer contact representatives -- are created. Finally, increased educational opportunities through remote education lead to more and higher paying jobs. To grouse that somehow the fact that the program won't be finished in a short period of time is ridiculous. It likewise is silly to suggest, as Esbin does, that the free market has provided adequate networks for un-served and underserved populations. It just isn't so.