Agencies flooded with comments about broadband stimulus

The comment period for using the broadband stimulus money ended this week

Two U.S. agencies soliciting comments about how to spend $7.2 billion in broadband deployment money have received about 1,400 comments, with conflicting views on Net neutrality among them.

More than 300 comments flooded into the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Monday, the deadline for comments on how the broadband deployment grant programs, part of a massive economic stimulus package, should be structured.

The CTIA, a trade group representing wireless carriers, urged the NTIA not to extend Net neutrality nondiscrimination rules beyond the rules enforced by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. Congress, in passing the $787 billion stimulus package, required the NTIA and FCC to create nondiscrimination rules for NTIA's $4.7 billion broadband grant program, but the CTIA suggested that wireless networks should not be subject to Net neutrality rules.

The Net neutrality rules "should be applied to broadband stimulus grantees within the context of its existing parameters, and not more broadly," the CTIA said in its comments (download PDF). "Wireless networks are inherently different than the networks for which the [Net neutrality] policy statement was developed. The underlying network infrastructure, including spectrum, as well as the integration of the customer equipment, make wireless significantly different than other broadband networks."

The stimulus package was signed in mid-February, and the NTIA plans to issue notices of funding by June, the CTIA noted. "This proceeding simply does not afford the luxury of time that would be necessary to go beyond the regulatory structure that has been (and continues to be) carefully considered by the FCC," the organization said.

But Free Press, a media reform group, urged the NTIA and RUS to go farther than current Net neutrality rules. The agencies should also set speed guidelines, with no projects that deliver speeds of less than 200Kbit/sec. funded by the agencies, Free Press said in its comments its comments. Grant applicants should report the minimum and average speeds they intend to deliver, wrote Derek Turner, Free Press' research director.

In addition, the stimulus package requires that the RUS give funding priority to projects that give users more than one Internet service provider and also requires the agency to give priority to projects that provide service to rural residents who do not have any access to broadband, Turner noted. Those priorities would suggest that Congress wants broadband projects that share lines with competitors, he said.

"At first glance, these two priorities appear to be in direct conflict," he wrote. "If a project will result in an end user having service from more than a single provider, then that service by definition will be provided to residents that already have access to broadband service. If we assume that Congress did not intend to saddle RUS with such conflicting priorities, we must assume that the first provision directs the agency to prioritize applications that will deploy broadband services that are sold on a wholesale basis to multiple retail providers."

Some critics, generally conservatives, have suggested that the Net neutrality and other rules will discourage carriers from applying for broadband grants or loans.

Specific Net neutrality rules are not required, and the stimulus package only required that the NTIA and the FCC publish nondiscrimination obligations, wrote Randolph May, president of the Free State Foundation, a conservative think tank (download PDF).

"Any such regulatory conditions not only would constitute unsound policy, but they would [also] be counterproductive in that some otherwise well-qualified providers may well be dissuaded from bidding for grant funds," May said in his comments. "Were this to happen, the overall economic efficiency and effectiveness of the broadband program would suffer."

May also urged the NTIA to give priority to private businesses' grant proposals, instead of ones from local governments, even though some other groups have suggested that local governments may offer the best chance for some areas to get broadband. May also called on the NTIA to focus on unserved areas, while the stimulus bill says the agencies can also provide grants to areas "underserved" by broadband providers.

But Larry Irving, co-chairman of broadband advocacy group the Internet Innovation Alliance, questioned whether Net neutrality rules would lead to a lack of grant applications. Irving, asked today about some large broadband providers potentially not participating in the grant programs, said he wasn't concerned.

"The solution for rural America is going to probably be found in rural communities and local players," said Irving, a former NTIA administrator. "There's going to be a lot more will than there's going to be wallet. There's going to be a lot more applications than NTIA or RUS is going to have the capacity to fund."

Irving also said he hopes the two agencies fund some "stretch grants," ideas that may seem like a stretch now but have potentially huge benefits. During President Bill Clinton's administration, the NTIA helped put computers in police cruisers and other emergency response vehicles, and those computers have helped emergency responders communicate in new ways, he said.

Several people commenting on the broadband grants also urged the agencies to require that any money spent be used to hire U.S. workers and buy U.S.-made equipment.

"It is important to assure broadband stimulus funds are used to stimulate the U.S. economy, not only by funding to improve broadband access, but also by making sure those funds are actually spent on equipment supplied and manufactured in the U.S.A.," wrote Jeffrey Thorpe of Portsmouth, N.H. "This will help U.S.-based telecommunication manufacturing companies and employees of those companies -- both of which are U.S. taxpayers."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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