Free Press Calls for Openness, Speed and Accountability in Broadband Stimulus

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Jen Howard, Free Press, (202) 265-1490 x22 or (703) 517-627

Free Press Calls for Openness, Speed and Accountability in Broadband Stimulus

WASHINGTON - Free Press is calling on Congress to attach public service conditions and accountability to the broadband stimulus funds allocated in the "American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill of 2009," previewed today in a release from the House Appropriations Committee.

According to the release, the House bill would allocate $6 billion in "wireless and broadband grants" toward "services in underserved areas to strengthen the economy and provide business and job opportunities in every section of America with benefits to e-commerce, education, and healthcare. For every dollar invested in broadband the economy sees a ten-fold return on that investment."

Read the release: http://appropriations.house.gov/pdf/PressSummary01-15-09.pdf

In letters sent to House Appropriations Chair David Obey (D-Wisc.) and Senate Appropriations Chair Daniel K. Inouye (D-Ill.), Free Press voiced support for broadband stimulus and urged legislators to target funding toward future-proof networks that are fast, open and affordable.

"While $6 billion is not as much as we had hoped for, it is a substantial investment that represents an important public commitment to broadband," said Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press. "This money must be tied to a single agency that can uphold clear principles of public service and enforce concrete administrative accountability."

Full text of the letter is included below:

We write to offer our strong support for the commitment shown by congressional leaders and President-elect Barack Obama to consider high-speed Internet -- our nation’s broadband networks -- as a focal point for the economic recovery package. Our telecommunications networks are the nervous system of our economy, catalysts of social mobility, and connection points to knowledge, information and political participation.

We are pleased to see the recent report that as much as $6 billion is allocated in the draft bill for broadband. This represents a critical component of what could be a multifaceted approach to economic stimulus through technology. We urge that these dollars be tied to clear public service principles and concrete administrative accountability. Broadband as economic recovery should be "build-out," not "bail-out."

We must view our communications infrastructure as a public good. This is not a moment to push dollars to large corporations in weakly competitive markets without a firm hand of oversight and an eye to the public interest. Too often in our recent past, government has given money to network owners to expand access and build next-generation connectivity, only to find promises broken and benefits lost. This is a significant part of the reason why the US has dropped to 22nd place in the world in broadband adoption. But change is in the air -- and a telecommunications sector that has long been off track can be righted. Done properly, broadband policy in the economic recovery package is one part of the solution. Public investment can trigger private investment, create hundreds of thousands of jobs, stimulate competition, and deliver to American consumers the permanent economic asset of a world-class communications network.

To do this right will require bold leadership. We ask that you organize broadband policy around these basic principles of public service:

Universality -- Bring networks to unserved and underserved areas.

Openness -- Prohibit discrimination against any lawful content on the networks and empower consumers with freedom of choice among Internet services.

Affordability -- Keep new networks at reasonably comparable prices with existing residential service.

Innovation -- Promote competition among network providers and build future-proof networks that address our perennial lag behind our global competitors.

Accountability -- Ensure that tax dollars spent on broadband networks achieve results, building metrics and benchmarks to guarantee transparency and a return on investment.

We want to especially emphasize a few key points.

First, tax dollars should not be used to fund closed, proprietary networks that shut out content providers, control consumer behavior, and encourage anticompetitive activity. That outcome would be anathema to the goal of building infrastructure of maximum utility to all of the American economy and society. There are several paths that Congress can take to protect consumers. These networks could be made open to all providers on a wholesale basis to promote competition. They could come with mandatory requirements to ensure nondiscrimination between network owners, content providers, and consumers. Or Congress could set policy to reaffirm and expand existing law to protect the innovation engine of the open Internet -- passing to the independent regulatory agencies the task of specifying the rules of the road. We must be clear that it is the open market of unfettered innovation, collaborative production, and consumer curiosity that has driven the success of network technologies to date. All of the economic multipliers that come with infrastructure investment depend on these network effects.

Second, grant monies should flow through a single administrative agency to ensure that accountability is clear and strict. Ideally, this should be an agency with the expertise to account for the impact of broadband stimulus on other telecommunications policy, especially the rate-payer supported Universal Service Fund.

Finally, we should be clear that stimulus policy and telecommunications policy overlap at a central conclusion -- speed equals jobs. Limited stimulus funds should be allocated to capital investment plans that would not have occurred otherwise. Further, these dollars should support the construction of new physical network infrastructure wherever possible, as these are the most job-intensive projects. This focus will naturally privilege faster networks which in turn have their own multiplier effect on the economy as consumers and business adopt these services. This program should be available and made attractive to all network owners, including municipalities, non-profits, and other non-incumbent operators.

We look forward to working with Congress, the new administration, and the broad community of public stakeholders to achieve the best possible outcome -- Internet for everyone.

View the letter to the House Appropriations Committee: http://www.freepress.net/files/Stimulus_letter_House_MCR.pdf

View the letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee: http://www.freepress.net/files/Stimulus_letter_Senate_MCR.pdf

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Free Press is a national, nonpartisan organization working to reform the media. Through education, organizing and advocacy, we promote diverse and independent media ownership, strong public media, and universal access to communications. Learn more at www.freepress.net

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