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Inside the Stimulus: Broadband's Triple Play

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, January 26 2009

Sure, stacked up against prescriptions for staving off complete collapse of the global credit market, what's in Obama's stimulus package having to do with broadband might seem minor in comparison. But the bill's provisions are indeed important, perhaps even hugely so. Three in particular are worth talking about. The first aims to fund the build out of high-speed Internet in unreached parts of the U.S. to the tune of about $6 billion. The second maps where in the U.S. broadband is available. And the third is, drum roll please...

Net neutrality, that most sexiest of tech topics.

But let's deal with the money and mapping first, because a neutral Internet is academic to those of us who can't get Internet or can't afford whatever services our cable company or telephone company provides.

Government Grants for Broadband Provisioning

According to the latest available text of the House version of the bill (pdf, natch), about $2.8 billion will go to fund rural build out programs through the USDA's Rural Development wing. About the same amount will pass through the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration), with one billion going to develop wireless broadband and another billion for wireline service. That's less than advocates have called for, but a nice chunk of change nonetheless. It will be up to Julius Genachowski's FCC to decide how to define the "unserved" and "underserved" communities targeted by the bill.

Mapping

Telecom companies are loathe to release information on where their broadband services are available. Their argument: revealing those details are like handing their competitors the keys to their castles. That's why we see efforts like Broadband Census, which maps broadband based on user surveys rather than company data.

The stimulus package directs NTIA to develop and maintain a "a broadband inventory map of the United States that identifies and depicts the geographic extent to which broadband service capability is deployed and available from a commercial provider or public provider."

Putting Tax Dollars Behind Neutrality

And last, neutrality. The bill includes a provision that might seem innocuous at first glance, requiring anyone who receives a government grant under the plan to "adhere to the principles contained in the Federal Communications Commission's broadband policy statement (FCC 05-151, August 5, 2005)." (The neutrality language is found on page 646 in this version of the bill.) Take a look at the important bits of that policy paper, but keep in mind that when they were adopted by the FCC they were a declaration of principles with no enforcement mechanism:

  • To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice.
  • To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to run applications and use services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement.
  • To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network.
  • To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.

To translate: Obama's stimulus package puts the force of law -- and billions on taxpayer dollars -- behind net neutrality. You don't have to be a close follower of the neutrality debate to know that that's one part of this bill that's going to rankle some in Washington. Keep an eye out for it to become one of the sticking points as on the package's journey from bill to law, particularly as the final package is hammered out in conference committee.