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Obama In Election-Year Push To Accelerate Broadband Development

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, June 14 2012

President Obama Is Pushing Broadband Development Image: Flickr/MikeCogh

In an election year push, President Obama on Thursday launched two initiatives meant to hasten the deployment of high-speed Internet access in the United States -- a key piece of national infrastructure that Obama has been mentioning frequently on recent campaign stops across the country.

On Thursday, Obama signed an executive order designed to make the permitting process more efficient for companies and other entities building out broadband networks. The order directs federal agencies managing federal properties and highways to streamline the process of permitting by making it uniform. The effort is similar to another one the administration has undertaken for the clean energy sector and is part of a wider effort by the administration to cut down on federal bureaucracy.

The second part of the initiative is the creation of a nonprofit called the US Ignite Partnership, which partners up several different departments of the federal government with private sector companies, private universities and municipalities to spur the development of 60 "advanced, next-generation applications capable of operating on giga-bit broadband networks over the next five years," according to the administration.

These moves come the same day Obama delivered a speech on the economy in Cleveland and Romney delivered a speech in Cincinnati.

The initiative will focus on six areas that the administration has identified as of national priority: Education and workforce development, advanced manufacturing, health, transportation, public safety and clean energy. The initiative will take place across 25 cities across the country, involving municipalities of all sizes. It's similar to Gig.U, a private initiative floated by former FCC counsel Blair Levin last year and still kicking around.

Telecommunications experts say gigabit broadband — which offers speeds 10 times or more what is now generally available to residential customers — is a key part of infrastructure development. But there's been widespread disagreement about the approach that the United States has adopted to encourage that development, so much so that much of the conversation since the 1996 Telecommunications Act has taken place in the courtroom. Meanwhile, other countries are speeding ahead. For example, South Korea is already building out high-speed fiber-optic infrastructure all the way to many homes. China, for its part, wants to reach 300 million people with high-speed, symmetrical (meaning the same speed uploading as downloading) Internet access in the next three years.

Telecom experts have been calling for reform. On Monday during her speech at Personal Democracy Forum, for example, Harvard visiting professor and former White House advisor Susan Crawford told the audience that broadband policy should be a campaign issue in every congressional race this year.

"We’re nowhere near the gig, symmetrical access, up and down that other countries are going to take for granted," Crawford said.

The central problem, Crawford said, is that the telecom providers have essentially decided not to compete and to carve out business arrangements to service certain geographic areas and customer segments, resulting in little or no real competition between Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner, the three largest providers of high-speed Internet access in the U.S.

On Thursday, Verizon spokesman Ed McFadden disputed that notion. Verizon is still building out its FIOS fiber-to-the-home network to 80 million homes over the next three to four years, he said.

"The critics should give us a little more credit," he added.

Verizon is one of the companies involved in U.S. Ignite, where it is using FIOS to partner with the city of Philadelphia to create a testbed for next-generation medical applications.

A Comcast spokeswoman said that the company has no comment beyond what was announced by the administration today.

The thing about gigabit Internet is so few people now have access that it's hard to describe its importance in anything but the most abstract terms — hence the focus on developing applications as well as the infrastructure itself. U.S. Ignite Partnership lists many potential projects to spark ideas. The National Science Foundation, Mozilla Foundation, and federal Department of Energy are announcing a $500,000 design competition aimed at developers and entrepreneurs to come up with apps that would make use of high-speed networks. And other cities that have built their own high-speed fiber networks, such as Chattanooga, Tenn., and Lafayette, La., are also part of the initiative. Telcos that are also partners in this effort have fought tooth and nail in state legislatures to make it illegal or difficult for cities to build networks like these. Having them all at the same table may be a statement in itself.

Telecom policy analyst David Isenberg praised Obama's move to make the process of broadband rollout more efficient, but said that he's withholding judgment about the Ignite initiative's potential impact on the rollout of broadband. His decision there depends on whether Ignite can build real competition.

"I want to be optimistic," Isenberg told me on the phone. "But it doesn't address the larger policy issues."