WASHINGTON, February 12, 2009 - The "open access" provisions of the broadband stimulus package currently before Congress was praised by technology industry officials and network neutrality activists during a conference call on Wednesday afternoon.
Open access is a "critical policy position," said Markham Erickson, of the Open Internet Coalition, a consortium of internet companies and activists supporting Net neutrality, or the requirement that carriers not discriminate in the applications and services that run over their communications networks.
Erickson was enthusiastic about the positive effects that open access would have on the economy, predicting broadband over open networks "would bring economic growth to all Americans" – both as the networks are built, and as companies make use of them to conduct commerce. An open network will continue to create jobs long after the need for stimulus has passed, he said.
Openness will also strengthen America's position in the global economy, he said. While closed networks "kill innovation," Erickson predicted open networks would result in strong American technology companies that would "extend their leadership in the global economy."
While differences remain between the House and Senate versions of the bill, Erickson said the coalition trusts that the conference committee will bring together the best aspects of each bill, and in particular unify the grant and tax credit programs under the administration of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The stimulus will "allow American consumers to reap the full dividends of high speed networks," he said.
Public Knowledge president Gigi Sohn said her organization "wants to applaud" both chambers for including the openness conditions. Referring to a Tuesday event at the American Enterprise Institute she participated in, Sohn said it was "quite remarkable" that the panelists questioned inclusion of broadband in the stimulus package.
Broadband will allow more Americans to become participants in the information economy, Sohn said. She compared high-speed networks of today to the highway projects of the 1950's. This "critically important" infrastructure will allow access to economic opportunities, health care and education, she said, calling open access is an absolute necessity. "If you own the on ramp to the Internet, you cannot pick winners and losers," she said.
Sohn was careful to point out that the open access provisions were not "network neutrality" legislation, which she defined as a prohibition against network operators "playing favorites" and giving priority to selected traffic. Open access, she said, has a "larger economic benefit -- the potential to create new innovation, competition, and more opportunities for consumers."
The amount of money earmarked for stimulus is "small but significant," said Computer and Communications Industry Association vice president for government affairs Cathy Sloan. CCIA is "delighted" the legislation includes money for broadband deployment, something Sloan said is "significantly lacking in this country." Either it's too expensive, or the networks don't reach far enough, she lamented.
But the stimulus is a "big step towards addressing that market failure," she said, and if the "forward-looking" legislation is successful, it would allow "all Americans to become part of the digital age."
The stimulus funds should be distributed according to "clear principles of public interest," said Free Press policy director Ben Scott. Scott cautioned against targeting funding to places that are already being built out by incumbent carriers.
Networks built under the stimulus plan should have the "speed bar" set high enough to be "future-proof," Scott said. The open access provisions, which he called "absolutely critical," would go car in creating jobs in both the applications and services industries, he said.
Scott expressed further concern over the separate grant-making processes, suggesting the FCC should have more guidance over how to spend the stimulus funds. Scott, along with NCTA president Kyle McSlarrow, signed a letter sent last week to Senate leaders urging support for a unified grant program under the NTIA.
But despite some concerns, Scot said lawmakers "ought to be applauded" for passing the legislation, and viewing broadband as "infrastructure for the 21st century."