As AT&T and Google push broadband adoption, the feds are non-players

Some question U.S. government efforts on digital inclusion, putting pressure on the private sector

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When asked whether AT&T is willing to extend a similar commitment to free service for thousands of homes in the 21 new cities it has identified to receive GigaPower, an AT&T spokeswoman said in a statement it is "too soon to speculate," adding that "AT&T will share more once the agreements are approved and we get closer to launch.

"AT&T values digital inclusion and economic development," she said. "In North Carolina, working with the cities, we identified some areas where AT&T is well positioned to assist with these important goals in these communities."

John Horrigan, an independent consultant who worked on the National Broadband Plan approved in 2010, said contributions by private Internet providers like Google and AT&T are going to matter in an era when government funding of digital inclusion programs is drying up.

"What we have now is an opportunity for a real, constructive public-private dialog that means some groups don't get left out," Horrigan said. "It's time to restart the debate over whether there's going to be more government funding for broadband adoption. The fiscal environment has made that conversation difficult to start."

Horrigan said that NTIA and the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, a federal initiative within the Department of Commerce, both got funding for broadband expansion in the Recovery Act of 2010, but that money is running out. "They may be out of money, but they aren't out of mission," he said. "There are still broadband adoption gaps. I'm a proponent of public-private partnerships to close the gaps, but there does need to be a public component."

As for whether there are any broadband inclusion champions in Congress, which ultimately has a say in funding, Horrigan said he knew of none. "I do believe the Obama administration cares and in the NTIA there's interest in doing more, but I don't know if they have the stomach for asking for funding at this point."

Heather Burnett Gold, president of the Fiber to the Home Council Americas, said one focus for more funding has been on the Federal Communications Commission and efforts to find money for a rural fiber buildout. In addition to projects by Verizon and other large carriers, Gold estimated there are 800 smaller fiber and related Internet providers who can help carry out rural fiber connections.

In an era when government funding for many different programs is scrutinized in Congress, there may be even more pressure on private providers to pony up dollars for digital inclusion. And at the very least, the focus will be on mayors and town councils to exact more from private providers than in the 1970s and 1980s, when cable franchises were handed out and state legislatures gave more bargaining power to local officials to negotiate with private companies.

"It's hard to say whether it's the business of private providers" to provide free broadband, said Doug Brake, telecom policy analyst for the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation in Washington. "This is a hard problem to solve on the local level, partly because it's about actual outreach to people and convincing people why broadband is important and I'm not sure that's the role of these companies."

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