ARLINGTON, Va., June 18, 2009 – House Energy and Commerce Communications Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher, D-Va., has no plans to influence the Federal Communications Commission’s development of a national broadband plan.
But speaking Thursday morning at the Pike and Fischer Broadband Policy Summit here, he made clear his experience representing a rural district informs his ideas on how the FCC should assist the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and Rural Utilities Service in defining unserved and underserved markets.
Boucher reiterated his belief in broadband as the “new essential American infrastructure,” which he said is of equal importance to this century as rural electrification and universal telephone service was to the last.
In the new economy, the “corridors of commercial opportunity” will be defined more and more by broadband, he said.
The $7.25 billion appropriated for broadband in the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act is “an historic opportunity” to improve America’s rankings among [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] nations, Boucher said. America must improve her OECD rankings “for the sake of our national economy,” he urged. “I know we can do better.”
Boucher is “hopeful” that NTIA and RUS will develop “complementary” standards for grant and loan making criteria, and which he said should be released “in the next few weeks.” While he acknowledged there are differences in goals between the NTIA and RUS programs, Boucher was optimistic that grant rules will be harmonized “to the greatest possible extent.”
RUS should play an important role in reaching unserved areas, Boucher said. He held up the RUS Community Connect program as an example of a “very successful” way to deploy broadband to rural districts like his. For “a few hundred thousand dollars,” the program has enabled communities with only a few hundred residents to become served “with extraordinary efficiency,” he said. This has been particularly true in Boucher’s district, he said. “I’m glad to see [RUS] has [funding] in this program.”
But the criteria for Community Connect are too restrictive, he said. Under current guidelines, communities where 25 percent of homes can receive some form of broadband are considered served, rand therefore excluded from Community Connect. The FCC should help NTIA and RUS develop a “common sense definition” that avoids such problems in the future.
Underserved markets can be defined by a number of metrics, Boucher said. Absence of competition, unreasonable prices, or low speeds could all indicate that a community is underserved, he suggested.
Standards for Broadband Technology Opportunity Program-funded projects should adhere to the statutorily mandated openness guidelines, Boucher said.
But the guidelines, which use the FCC’s four principles on network neutrality as a baseline, should not lead to “overly burdensome” regulations that discourage private sector participation. Private sector applicants have the most knowledge and experience to deploy broadband, Boucher said. “It’s important that private sector entities apply,” he urged.
The stimulus is also only one piece of the broadband puzzle, Boucher said. He called for reform of the Universal Service Fund to make broadband services eligible for subsidies. A bill he co-sponsored with Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., did not make much headway when it was introduced a few years ago, but Boucher said that passage of USF reform legislation is “now within reach.”
Boucher also announced he would be signing on as a sponsor of Rep. Anna Eshoo’s Broadband Conduit Deployment Act, which his Senate colleague Mark Warner, D-Va., introduced Monday with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
And while Boucher made clear his intent that FCC Chairman-designate Julius Genachowski (D) to “take the lead” in developing a national broadband plan, he did not rule out legislative action on network neutrality “at the proper time” if conversations among stakeholders do not cause them to “narrow the gap” in the debate.