Grant Program Must Balance Competing Interests and Remain Transparent, Experts Say

Broadband Stimulus, NTIA March 9th, 2009

, Reporter,

WASHINGTON, March 9, 2009 – Soon to be released FCC data will help balance the interests of public need for expanded networks and industry needs for financial incentives while implementing the goals of the Obama broadband stimulus package, a triumvirate of telecommunications experts said  during a Monday conference call, less than 24 hours from NTIA’s release of broadband grant criteria.

The group was headlined by by former Rep. Charles “Chip” Pickering, R-Miss., who was joined by Free Press policy director Ben Scott and Markham Erickson of the Open Internet Coalition. The trio spoke in advance of Tuesday’s joint FCC-NTIA-RUS stimulus kick-off meeting, which begins at 10:00 am at the Department of Commerce.

While each represented a different perspective on broadband issues, all agreed that fully achieving the short and long term goals of the stimulus package requires a careful balance between public interests and private market incentives.

Tuesday’s meeting is the beginning of “an extraordinary period, in which the government is investing in broadband infrastructure,” Scott said. Scott compared the broadband stimulus program to previous public investments in highways and electrification. But Scott was clear to emphasize money alone won’t solve the nation’s broadband infrastructure problems. “It all hinges on getting the policy right,” he said, invoking President Obama’s inaugural address: “It’s about government that works.”

Scott outlined three goals for the stimulus program in order to ensure its success: The program must be “data driven” to give priority to projects that give taxpayers “the biggest bang for the buck.”  This will require all available government resources, Scott said.

Scott specifically referred to an FCC-commissioned study on broadband availability to be released March 16.  The new data, which replaces an old set that measured availablity by ZIP code, will allow the FCC to link broadband information to census bureau data, Scott said. This link will allow the government to direct money to “truly unserved and underserved areas,” Scott said.

Grant applicants must make the case that they are providing “future-proof” service to eligible areas, Scott added. Among the idea he proposed for this goal were minimum speed requirements and disclosure of business plans to ensure grantees can provide both affordable rates, and a cost model showing effective use of taxpayer dollars. The network must not become obsolete, Scott emphasized: “If we’re building a rural network, we have to make sure we’re not recreating a digital divide.”

And grantees must recognize the public sector as a partner, Scott said. Grant applicants should take into account benefits to schools, libraries and public safety in designing their programs, he said.

And stimulus funding shouldn’t stop with build-out, he said. The program could easily use stimulus dollars to help fund the proposed expansion of Universal Service Fund Life Line and Link Up programs, he suggested.

Open Internet’s Markham said he was “thrilled” that Congress mandated compliance with the FCC’s Internet Policy Statement neutrality principles. The network “must be open to all speech and commerce,” he said — a “common sense” principle that has allowed the Internet to feed job growth for over a decade.

The “exciting opportunity” presented by the stimulus should be targeted not only to fill gaps in the network, but to fund economically and commercially viable entities that will be “sustainable for the long term,” said Pickering, who represented a rural district in Mississippi and was an active member of the House Telecommunications subcommittee.

And while public-private partnerships “maximize the leverage” of stimulus funding, Pickering cautioned that the public funding process should be transparent. A well-implemented NTIA program “can give the country addditional investment growth…and the opportunity to see a more vibrant marketplace,” he said.  “Matching public interest and a private investment, free market model are not mutually exclusive.”

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