By Ira Teinowitz, Special Correspondent, BroadbandCensus.com
WASHINGTON, May 12, 2009 - The chairman of a House Communications Subcommittee on Tuesday warned against too narrowly defining eligibility limits for grants in dispensing $7.2 billion in broadband stimulus money authorized by Congress.
Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., who is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, said at the Broadband Breakfast Club that the need to quickly stimulate the economy and have the greatest effect should trump longer-term goals like net neutrality – at least for the broadband stimulus.
Boucher said he believed that the “openness and unfettered” access of the Internet had spurred its growth. But trying to use stimulus grants to impose limits on what private industry could do might have the unfortunate result of making some private companies not seek grants.
“It’s critically important that the private sector apply” for stimulus program grants, he said. “The private sector has the expertise to do this quickly.”
“We don’t want through an overly rigid interpretation to discourage private sector applications.”
Boucher also said the anticipated expansion of a tiny Rural Utilities Service program to bring high-speed internet service to rural communities into a major economic program also allows the definition of communities that were “unserved” and “underserved” to be flexible. He didn’t offer any specific definition of those terms, however.
While praising the RUS program, Community Connect, he said its “unserved” definition – any community where no household could get high speed internet – sometimes prevented some mostly-unserved communities getting aid simply because a single house on the fringe of a neighborhood could get broadband.
The stimulus plan includes money for both “unserved” areas and “underserved” areas. Boucher called defining “underserved” one of the legislation’s “highest challenges.”
That definition needs to be some combination of the absence of competition for high speed, high pricing and the unavailability of higher speeds at reasonable rates, he said. The definition should be flexible.
“We think a broader view of what is underserved is better,” he said.
Boucher offered a preview of the grant process for the stimulus money.
He said that the money would be dispensed in three cycles and the hope was that all would be spent within a year and that both public and private agencies could apply. He also said that while the immediate focus is using the stimulus money to increase broadband availability, he anticipates a rewrite of the universal service phone service law –a law that provides money to ensure rural communities get reasonably priced phone service –will make clear the money can be used to provide broadband too.
In a follow up panel discussion, Derek Turner, research director for the non-profit advocacy group Free Press, said that determining which areas do and don’t qualify for grants is going to be difficult. This is so because the level of data available from the Federal Communications Commission and others on broadband availability, while improving, still has a long way to go before being thorough.”
“In the context of the stimulus program, we are going to be up against the clock,” he said.
James Bradford Ramsey, general counsel of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissions, urged that federal agencies check with state regulators before making broadband grant determinations. Whether the states yet have a map of unserved areas, they are the one hearing residents complaints, he said.
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