Let me say at the outset that the more I dig into the stimulus bill (barring the tax cuts) the more impressed I get. The team that worked on broadband stimulus in particular really put careful thought into how to create a package that would go to underserved or unserved communties urban and rural communities, would re-enforce community institutions, and would provide a boost for both competition and open networks. Consider the following:
The RUS program ($2.5 bn):
1) May make grants as well as loans;
2) Should prioritize projects “that will deliver end users a choice of more than one service provider.”
The Technologies Opportunity Program (TOP) at NTIA (Aprox. $4.3 bn):
1) Provides that local and state government and entities and non-profit entities are the only entities automatically eligible. The Administrator of NTIA must find by rule that allowing other classes of entities to receive money “serves the public interest.”
2) Includes $200 mil reserved for “public computing facilities” such as libraries.
3) Includes a wide range of goals that center on digital inclusion beyond simply building infrastructure.
4) Includes mandatory non-discrimination and interconnection requirements.
It is difficult to overstate the extent to which this represents a paradigm shift from the last 8 years, or even to the broadband efforts of the Clinton Administration. The old paradigm saw only traditional carriers and residential or enterprise customers. The regulatory arguments centered on what mixture of bribery, cajolery and compulsion would get large for-profit companies to do what policymakers in Washington wanted — provide “affordable” broadband.
The broadband stimulus bill offers a much more sophisticated approach. The question is not “regulate” or “deregulate,” nor is the goal so narrow as simply building infrastructure. The stimulus bill embraces the idea of a “broadband ecology” in which we — as a matter of public policy — value broadband for its transformative effect rather than for its consumer value and place it within the communities we hope to positively transform. It departs from seeing traditional large for-profit firms as the linchpin of broadband strategy to merely one of many participants, and one which can largely attend to itself. It departs from accepting the state of broadband deployment as a primarily private sector enterprise to one in which sound federal policy demands, at a minimum, that the federal government have an accurate assessment of this critical infrastructure and a plan for how it will — in the words of Title I of the Communications Act of 1934 — “make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, a rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges.”
Along the way, the stimulus package provides a nudge toward both competition and open networks as actual objects of public policy rather than goals devoutly wished for but subject to the mercies of the market. And, as the stimulus package shows, the government can play an appropriate role in the broadband ecosystem without the boogeymen brandished by those claiming that even thinking of having a pro-competition policy or restraining the ability of network operators to monetize their last mile connections would bring the “free market” crashing down and would reduce us to government issued slide rules. If the running a non-discriminatory network doesn't fit your business plan, then don't take the money — that's a feature, not a bug, that will encourage a much greater diversity of providers.
But while the stimulus bill makes a good start at rethinking what “broadband” deployment means and how it will happen, we need to recognize that this potential culture change is still very young — and at risk. Art Brodsky's piece on Connected Nation highlights an important aspect of the broadband stimulus package — the real policy battles have only just begun. The money must be spent, which means that the people making the decisions must interpret the statute. Every aspect of the stimulus package, every priority, every phrase, will be hotly contested and fought over by those who have done quite well under the old mentality and would like to see as much money as possible go to traditional players (i.e., themselves).
Happily, given the requirements of the statute and the nature of this Administration (at least so far), that process should be open and robust. But it will depend on those of us who support a more complex view of the broadband universe, one that goes beyond the traditional ideas of who is a carrier or even what “broadband service” means and why we care. But unless advocates of a more sophisticated view of broadband policy show up, ready to fight to make the most of this opportunity, then those charged with spending the money will drift back to the traditional way of doing things from a sheer lack of alternatives.
The stimulus bill makes a tremendous start for broadband policy in the new Administration. It is, hopefully, the harbinger of a genuinely new way of looking at information policy — one that goes beyond “consumers” and “suppliers” and recognizes all elements of the community as equally important and vital. but it can't just be “change we can believe in, but won't fight for.” It has to be “change we want enough to make happen.”