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Regulators, Officials Debate Need for National Broadband Policy, Fund

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Editor’s Note: The following story was published in TR Daily on September 26, 2008, and is reprinted with the permission of Telecommunications Reports International, Inc. This article is and remains Copyright 2008 Telecommunications Reports International, Inc.

By Carrie DeLeon, Telecommunications Reports

A national broadband infrastructure fund should include the involvement of state regulators and focus not only on the extension of broadband service into unserved areas, but also on the adoption rate of broadband service by consumers, according to California Public Utilities Commissioner Rachelle Chong.

During a keynote address this morning at the Broadband Census for America Conference in Washington, Commissioner Chong advocated for the implementation of a national broadband infrastructure fund, and suggested that the Universal Service Fund be reformed to shift the focus from traditional wireline to advanced services.

“More assertive national leadership on broadband policy is not only necessary, but critical,” Commissioner Chong said.

In addition, the former FCC regulator said that while some states, including California, have been successful in their efforts to map broadband data, a national mapping of broadband data could be helpful to states by enabling them to compare their broadband efforts with other states.

Other participants in the conference, which was held at the Washington office of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, also saw the need for national leadership in some aspects of broadband policy, but said that ultimately states are responsible for broadband deployment.

Jane Smith Patterson, executive director, e-NC Authority, asserted that states are the most qualified to collect broadband data. “Assistance from the federal government is great, but ultimately the states are responsible for their own economic development,” Ms. Patterson said.

Similarly, Larry Landis, a member of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, pointed out that states have an “imperative to develop broadband that does not exist at the national level.”

On the other hand, William Lehr, an economist and researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that certain data needs to be collected at the federal level in order to validate the states’ efforts. The federal government is also more equipped to assist with resources and information sharing, “so a leadership role from the federal government is necessary,” he said.

In shifting the discussion to what a national or state broadband mapping project should look like, Commissioner Chong said it is very important to analyze the “take rate.” She said that if the take rate in certain areas is low, then policymakers need to determine what factors are causing that low adoption rate and think of solutions to address the problem.

“Getting broadband access is really just the first step,” Commissioner Chong said. “The affordability of that broadband access is the next big factor.” Jeffrey Campbell, senior director at Cisco Systems and a member of the California Broadband Task Force, agreed. “It doesn’t do any good to have broadband if no one is using it,” he said.

Mr. Campbell also stressed the importance of gathering broadband data at the household level. “It’s the kind of level of data we just have to have. You wouldn't say 98% of people have electricity. Two percent do not … guess where they are,” Mr. Campbell said.

Several of the speakers during the conference discussed the need for a leader - whether it be the state legislature, the governor, or a community group on the local level - to champion for broadband and mapping. Commissioner Chong said that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R.) “really put the spotlight on broadband” by forming a broadband task force and initiating the state broadband mapping project.

According to Commissioner Chong, it’s important to convince government leaders and lawmakers that broadband is a necessary part of the infrastructure. “If you don’t have broadband you’re not going to have a state-of-the-art business economy,” Commissioner Chong said. “We firmly believe that broadband is infrastructure, just like schools or levees are part of the infrastructure. So is broadband.”

“The leadership of the governor is very important. I also had to lobby the legislature,” Commissioner Chong said. “Lawmakers told me, ‘I think the Internet is a luxury so why should I tax consumers’ phone bills,’ and I had to convince them otherwise.”

The other huge challenge for state regulators is that they don’t regulate the Internet, Commissioner Chong pointed out. “So all I can do is encourage them to build out and try to provide incentives,” she added.

- Carrie DeLeon,

TR Daily, September 26, 2008

Copyright © 2008, Telecommunications Reports International, Inc.

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