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Recovery Act

Broadband Stimulus Funds Bring Debate Over Distribution; Package Moves to Vote

WASHINGTON, February 7, 2009 – Funding for broadband deployment makes up approximately one percent of President Obama’s approximately $820 billion economic stimulus package. But a hearty debate has unfolded over how, where, and to whom those funds should be distributed.

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WASHINGTON, February 7, 2009 – Funding for broadband deployment makes up approximately one percent of President Obama’s approximately $820 billion economic stimulus package. But a hearty debate has unfolded over how, where, and to whom those funds should be distributed.

After a late-Friday deal that keeps the momentum going on negotiations in the Senate, a vote to cut off debate on the broader package was expected on Monday, to be followed by a final Senate vote on Tuesday.

As regards the Senate’s $9 billion proposed for broadband – a sum that CNN and The New York Times reported had been cut to $7 billion – the heart of the debate was over who would receive the billions of dollars in funding for broadband deployment.

The House-passed bill split its $6 billion for broadband between $2.825 billion in grants to be made from the Commerce Department and $2.825 billion in loans to be made by the Agriculture Department. An additional $350 million would go to administering the new grants at Commerce.

By contrast, the Senate bill would put the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration in charge of channeling almost all of the $9 billion in Thursday’s version of the Senate bill. That Senate version also allowed for some of those funds to be transferred to the Agriculture Department, or the Federal Communications Commission, subject to various preconditions.

An amendment to the Senate bill that would incorporate the House language had been offered by Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. The amendment was not one of the many that were considered as debate on the bill went late into Friday evening.

On Wednesday, the non-profit advocacy group Free Press and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association sent a joint letter to Senate leaders urging that NTIA be the sole arbiter of funding broadband.

“While there may be appropriate roles for other agencies to play in broadband, the size and scope of this program—as well as its necessary integration into other telecommunications policies—strongly indicates a single agency strategy as the correct path,” wrote NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow and Free Press Policy Director Ben Scott.

The two groups often butt heads over cable operators’ network management policies and network neutrality.

The NCTA wants to limit the role of the FCC in administering any broadband programs to data collection and definitions, said vice president for communications Brian Dietz. The Commission’s role should be limited to defining “underserved” and “unserved” areas for targeting, Dietz said. But it should not have a role in allocating funds. Instead, Dietz stressed that NTIA is the agency best equipped to allocate resources based on FCC data.

The goal of the joint letter is only to prevent splitting the funding among different agencies with varying goals and experience with broadband, said Free Press research director Derek Turner.

While the two longtime adversaries are in agreement on this “very narrow issue,” industry observers should not expect any kind of detente between the industry and the watchdog group. Free Press is “not going soft in any way…on other issues,” said Turner.

Even while supporting NTIA’s role in the stimulus, Free Press broke with NCTA on the FCC’s role. As the single agency with the most experience overseeing telecom policy and universal access, Turner said the commission should play a “very active role” in crafting the program.

Turner pointed out that the Senate bill directs the FCC to cooperate with NTIA to craft a national broadband strategy. The commission has largely abdicated its role in promoting competition, he said, and should “certainly be doing more.”

Some other industry veterans have raised criticisms of how effective the stimulus will be. During a roundtable webcast discussion on Friday morning, K&L Gates’ Marty Stern said he wasn’t sure how much competition $9 billion in funds would lead to. We don’t know who the “winners” will be, Stern said. But the program should have few restrictions in order to all companies to build out infrastructure.

The focus of the build-out was a subject of further debate during the webcast program, which was sponsored by TV Mainstream. (Editor’s Note: TV Mainstream has partnered with BroadbandCensus.com in providing webcasts of the Broadband Breakfast Club. The next event is scheduled for Tuesday, February 10, from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.)

Dow Lohnes attorney Jim Burger wasn’t sure building out to rural areas would be the best use of the funds. “What we need to do is get fatter pipes into the densest portions of the population,” he said.

Concentrating on denser areas would lead to more job creation, Burger suggested, and pointed out that wireless broadband could be a less expensive solution for increased service over the “last mile” compared to other solutions. “Laying fiber to the curb is expensive,” he said of building out to far-flung areas.

But the administration’s focus on universal broadband is “entirely appropriate,” said Consumer Electronics Association vice president Michael Petricone. He compared broadband deployment to the government’s construction of roads and canals to rural areas. The key to the program’s success will be competition and a “technology neutral” approach, he said.

Burger cautioned against unrealistic expectations. The stimulus won’t create an environment like South Korea, he said, citing that country’s dense population and massive urban centers. Instead, the program should direct funds to where businesses can use it to create jobs, he said.

Petricone agreed with Burger’s sobering assessment, but stressed the urgent need for action to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure: “We’re never going to be Korea, but we shouldn’t be 15th in the world either.”

BroadbandCensus.com Broadband Stimulus Wiki

BroadbandCensus.com has been collecting proposals about broadband-related stimulus proposals on the Broadband Stimulus Wiki.

Broadband Breakfast Club

Don’t miss the Broadband Breakfast Club on Tuesday, February 10, 2009, with Donald C. Brittingham (Verizon Communications), Tom DeRiggi (Rapid DSL & Wireless), John Kneuer (formerly of NTIA), John Muleta (M2Z Networks) and Steve B. Sharkey (Motorola) on “The Role of Wireless Frequencies in Widespread Broadband Deployment” at the Old Ebbitt Grill, from 8 a.m. – 10 a.m.

Webcasts of the Broadband Breakfast Club Produced in Partnership with:

TV Mainstream

Andrew Feinberg is the White House Correspondent and Managing Editor for Breakfast Media. He rejoined BroadbandBreakfast.com in late 2016 after working as a staff writer at The Hill and as a freelance writer. He worked at BroadbandBreakfast.com from its founding in 2008 to 2010, first as a Reporter and then as Deputy Editor. He also covered the White House for Russia's Sputnik News from the beginning of the Trump Administration until he was let go for refusing to use White House press briefings to promote conspiracy theories, and later documented the experience in a story which set off a chain of events leading to Sputnik being forced to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Andrew's work has appeared in such publications as The Hill, Politico, Communications Daily, Washington Internet Daily, Washington Business Journal, The Sentinel Newspapers, FastCompany.TV, Mashable, and Silicon Angle.

Broadband Mapping

In Discussing ‘Broadband and the Biden Administration,’ Trump and Obama Transition Workers Praise Auctions

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Screenshot from the November 2 Broadband Breakfast Live Online webcast

November 22, 2020 – In the event that the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden seeks substantial funding for broadband infrastructure, there is a strong likelihood that such monies would be channeled through a reverse-auction mechanism, said panelists at the Broadband Breakfast Live Online event on November 11.

See more from Broadband Breakfast Live Online, including “Broadband and the Biden Administration, Part II,” on December 2, 2020.

In a discussion with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark, two broadband policy experts who served on the transition teams for Donald Trump and Barack Obama, respectively, championed the role of such a mechanism as efficient and fair.

Previous attempts to run funding through other selection processes provided funds only to the well connected, claimed to Mark Jamison, research and education director at the University of Florida, and who served on then President-elect Trump’s 2016 transition team.

Places with a Democratic governor or a congressman of either party that sat on a powerful committee were funded more often compared to other regions, Jamison said.

Whether or not funding mechanisms were in fact biased in that way, both Jamison and Technology Policy Institute President Scott Wallsten both praised the transparency and economic efficiency of the Federal Communications Commission’s reverse-auction funding mechanism.

Wallsten, an economist who was involved in the transition for then President-elect Obama, and who also served on the National Broadband Plan implemented in the first year of the Obama administration, criticized the Rural Utility Service and the old funding process of Universal Service Fund. Both said under these mechanism, a lot of money is spent without good information about how such funds are awarded or distributed.

Wallsten and Jamison agreed that more data would help make broadband funding more effective, they also said that the FCC was right to move forward with its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction on October 29 – part of the new auction-based approach to the Universal Service Fund – despite imperfect mapping.

In part, this was because any inadequacy of mapping data can be resolved in the challenge process, said Wallsten. Additionally, it is not clear that auctions like RDOF, or the Connect American Fund auction in 2018, would have yielded better results had the FCC waited to update their maps.

Jamison and Wallston also projected how the Biden administration might tackle net neutrality, Section 230 and antitrust regulation.

Jamison said that if the Biden administration reinstitutes net neutrality, it will quickly see that that won’t work very well.

Wallsten said that if it’s reinstituted the debate will be different than in the past. A large part of net neutrality is paid prioritization where third parties can pay ISP’s to put their content “at the front of the line.” He said that the pandemic has demonstrated why no paid prioritization may be a mistake, as many people need guarantees of stable connection for their schooling and telehealth applications.

Wallsten also noted that many made doom and gloom forecasts when the Trump administration FCC removed net neutrality protections in December 2017. None of those predictions came to pass, he said.

Both also agreed that the FCC should not be involved the regulation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects tech platforms from liability for user-generated comments.

They also were wary of changes to the consumer welfare standard governing antitrust because, said Jamison, “If you’re not regulating for consumers, who are we regulating for?”

See “Broadband Breakfast Live Online on Wednesday, November 11: Broadband and the Biden Administration,” Broadband Breakfast

“Broadband and the Biden Administration” is sponsored by:

As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.

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National Broadband Plan

National Broadband Plan Has Held Up Well, With Notable Downsides, Say Authors

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Photo of Blair Levin, former executive director of the National Broadband Plan, by New America used with permission

June 29, 2020 — The National Broadband Plan has been successful, despite notable downsides, said panelists in a Federal Communications Bar Association webinar on Friday.

The plan, first released ten years ago, aimed to increase competition, provide lower-cost service to more Americans and decrease regulatory barriers to broadband rollout.

“Ten years in this space in terms of technology is remarkable,” said Rebekah Goodheart of Jenner & Block. “At the time only 15 percent of people had access… of 25 megabits… The fact that this plan was able to stand up through time shows how visionary it really was.”

“All the stuff that we’re taking for granted now are things that came out of recommendations from the plan,” she added.

Participants noted that, despite broadband access deficiencies amid the coronavirus, “overall broadband adoption rates [are] going up reasonably well right now,” said John Horrigan, Senior Fellow at the Technology Policy Institute.

But there are still significant barriers to unfettered telework capabilities, he said.

“We’re also waking up to the fact that smartphones, as useful as they are, have significant limitations for completing homework,” he said.

Ruth Milkman of Quadra Partners agreed.

“There’s a lot of stuff you can’t do on a smartphone,” she said. “It’s hard to read papers… and there are data caps, and it can be quite expensive if you try to use it in the same way that you would use a fixed wireline network.”

Blair Levin, non-resident Fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Project of the Brookings Institution, said that sections of the National Broadband Plan held up remarkably well, even ten years later.

“In the healthcare section which says, ‘We really need to utilize telehealth because someday there’ll be a pandemic’… it does look very prophetic,” he said.

Despite the proactivity of the policy, Levin said, it has certain shortcomings that the FCC should address.

“We’ve become much more aware in this society of different ways in which our institutions do not include everyone and lead to inequalities,” he said. “I would argue that absolutely needs to be a new plan… now it’s more important than ever because we recognize the importance of closing that digital divide.”

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Digital Inclusion

Authors of the 2010 National Broadband Plan Say That a ‘Refresh’ Should Not Only Be Up to FCC

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Photo of INCOMPAS policy summit panelists discussing the National Broadband Plan by Adrienne Patton

WASHINGTON, March 4, 2020 – Panelists at the INCOMPAS policy summit Tuesday looked back with fondness on the Federal Communication Commission’s National Broadband Plan that was released 10 years ago this month. They agreed that if the plan is refreshed, the FCC should not be the lone agency to lead in the changes.

The 10-year-old plan was designed to “ensure robust competition” and “maximize the benefits of broadband,” while fostering the spread of broadband across the country, said INCOMPAS General Counsel Angie Kronenberg.

New Street Research Policy Analyst Blair Levin, who led the plan’s development, called it a “three-act play.”

The first act was the hiring people. The second act was holding hearings and acquiring data. The third act was an extensive writing process, Levin said.

When asked how the United States is doing in regards to the plan, Levin said there have been great improvements and some complications.

Mattey Consulting Principal Carol Mattey who worked on the plan, said it was a “long and evolutionary process,” that often required “nitty gritty details” from complex concepts.

Technology Policy Institute Senior Fellow John Horrigan, who also worked on the plan, said that while the statistics do not show a large increase in Americans that have wireline broadband at home, smart phones and mobile devices have made a huge difference.

Even so, Horrigan admitted that for children who have to do homework at home, smart phones are not enough.

However, Horrigan said the way that policy makers understand and think about the digital divide has improved.

A decade ago, city mayors were not concerned about digital inclusion, and now that has changed, said Horrigan.

Levin disclosed his frustration with the “metrics” section of the plan. The availability of bandwidth should not hinder economic growth, said Levin. But, “fundamentally we’ve made progress,” Levin admitted.

“The regulatory process is too slow to catch up,” and legislators are hesitant to look so far in the future while also considering cost concerns, said Mattey.

Looking ahead to a possible refresh of the plan, Horrigan said the FCC should not be the sole organization reworking the document.

Levin agreed and added that broadband has changed over the past decade as well. He called broadband a “mixed bag.”

The whole federal government should be thinking about how to revive the plan and take into consideration cybersecurity and privacy, Levin advised.

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