A group of Internet experts debates how broadband funds in the economic stimulus effort should be allocated.
Media policy advocates agree that investing in expanding broadband service ought to be part of the economic stimulus package. But they disagree on the most effective ways to get service to underserved areas — like rural communities — while still meeting the goal of jumpstarting the economy.
“We need to recognize that this is an economic stimulus bill and that the focus needs to be on jobs,” said Debbie Goldman of the Communications Workers of America, a union that represents 300,000 workers. She said the telecommunications industry was being hurt by the economy and needed quick action. “We need to get the money to folks who can build networks and build them fast.”
According to Goldman and others, Congress should focus on providing tax credits to commercial cable and telecommunications corporations to improve and expand their broadband networks.
But the director of a rural nonprofit Internet provider said that national communications corporations have ignored the needs of rural customers in the past and that, even with tax incentives, they would do so in the future.
“The big (telecommunications corporations) are the last place to look for ‘shovel-ready’ projects,” said Wally Bowen of the Mountain Area Information Network of western North Carolina. He said subsidizing these companies to build out broadband into rural areas is like “bribing them to go where their business models have no future.”
The speakers were part of a panel assembled by the New America Foundation to offer perspectives on broadband provisions within the proposed economic stimulus package. The House version of the stimulus package currently contains about $6 billion for improving the nation’s broadband networks. The funding would be split between two federal programs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
The bill does include funding to conduct a more complete mapping of broadband access in the United States. Rural advocates have supported this effort, because while it’s known that rural areas generally lag metropolitan communities in access to broadband, the federal government can’t say by how much.
According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, less than a third of rural Americans have access to broadband at home, while nearly half of metropolitan residents have such access. Internationally, the U.S. ranks 17th in broadband access.
But the goal of the economic stimulus package for broadband must be more than just increasing access, said Robert Atkinson, president of Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “Stimulus has to have one goal, and that’s to get as much investment in as short amount of time as possible,” he said. “It’s a mistake to drive [media] reform in this agenda. More reform means less investment.”
Other speakers said the stimulus package needed to address issues such as open access, priority for communities that don’t have broadband access currently, and a faster network to handle the next wave of web applications.
“The telecos [telephone companies] and cable companies aren’t building the kinds of networks that are going to take us to the next generation of work,” said Benjamin Lennett, senior program associate with the New America Foundation.