Stimulus package contains broadband open access provisions

A legislative measure to fund broadband deployment in rural and underserved areas is one of the attachments to the hotly debated economic stimulus package.

A chunk of the economic stimulus package being debated on Capitol Hill, and whose initial votes are happening now, would empower the Commerce Dept. to direct its NTIA division to provide federal grants to businesses that build out broadband service in underserved regions of the country.

Granted, the NTIA will be directed to perform a study to determine just what "underserved" means in the modern context. But an amount currently reported at $6 billion could be reserved for so-called Wireless Deployment Grants. Among the major restrictions:

  • 75% of the grant money will be reserved for providing broadband data service, with the remainder allocated for broadband voice
  • "Basic broadband service" is being defined as a 5 Mbps minimum downstream connection, with "advanced broadband" at 15 Mbps. Previously, the government defined a broadband connection as slow as a 160 Kbps.
  • Grant recipients will be limited to providing service under so-called "open access rules," though the bill as currently drafted delegates the authority for defining those rules to the FCC.

The NTIA would then be charged with the creation of something called a "National Broadband Plan," which is similarly foggy in nature. But the idea is apparently to determine a way to blanket the nation, including underserved regions, with efficient broadband service such that Americans have access to the Internet wherever they go. A read of the current language indicates that this is not a "free broadband" scheme as some have mistaken it to be, but rather a way of enabling all parts of the country access to service, even if it's commercial service.

In a blog post yesterday, Public Knowledge communications director Art Brodsky sounded a modest note of approval for the measure, but cautioned folks specifically about what the bill is not -- at least, not yet.

"Whether the FCC is led by interim Chairman Michael Copps, or by the presumed Obama Administration appointee, Julius Genachowski, the Commission will have a chairman attuned to the notion of an open network," Brodsky wrote. "One can't take anything for granted, but as the situation looks favorable at the moment. It's important to understand that open access isn't Net Neutrality, and it's certainly not the wide-ranging, basic Net Neutrality for which we continue to push. Open access has its own merit as a mechanism for creating new competition and should, as with Net Neutrality, be applied more widely as they had been before 2005 when the FCC closed off access to networks by competitors to incumbent telecom and cable companies."

Brodsky went on to remind readers that the existence of open access rules could certainly turn private interests off of the idea of applying for grants, as they did during last year's massive FCC spectrum auction, which left the open-access-protected D-block unsold.

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