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Cable Nudges Congress In Stimulus Planning

3/07/2009 8:30 AM Eastern

As the U.S. government prepares to dole out more than $7 billion in broadband grant and loan money in the economic-stimulus package, the cable industry, among others, is giving advice on how to spend it.

The government should put a priority on extending broadband service to areas that can’t get it at all, and to helping underserved populations buy and use the service that already exists there, said the National Cable & Telecommunications Association in a letter to every member of Congress. Only after that — and if there is any money left over — should the government start putting money into essentially overbuilding underserved areas according to faster speeds or some other measure of “underserved.”

The NCTA is weighing in as the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, the Federal Communications Department and the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service work to come up with guidelines for the program, including stipulations about open access, nondiscriminatory interconnection and how to define the “underserved areas” that will qualify, along with unserved areas, for the money.

In the letter from NCTA president Kyle McSlarrow to every member of Congress, the cable association identified a number of the barriers to adoption in underserved areas that the government could address short of simply funding new competitors to cable operators already serving those areas. They included affordability (adding the caveat that price concern came despite declining prices per megabit and the increasing value of the service) and the lack of a computer, or computer literacy.

NTIA, FCC and RUS are meeting next week in a public forum to discuss the grant/loan program. Among the issues that needs to be resolved are just what an underserved area will be defined as and how best to serve it. The FCC has the added charter of coming up with a plan, within a year, for getting broadband service to all the remaining unserved areas.

Those unserved areas, said McSlarrow, come despite cable’s progress, as the largest U.S. broadband provider, to wire the nation. He said that included spending $146 billion since 1996 to upgrade and expand networks (which now reach 92% of the country with broadband service), and the deployment of next-generation wideband service at much higher speeds. He also gave cable some of the credit for the competition, saying that investment had spurred telcos and wireless providers to up their broadband deployment.

Free Press has told the government it wants an open road, with the FCC and NTIA guaranteeing open Internet and reasonable and nondiscriminatory interconnection, established speed benchmarks, census-based definitions of served and unserved areas and accountability for grant expenditures. But to put some human faces on its proposal, it released a report last week, “Five Days On the Digital Dirt Road,” that documents a trip through rural North Carolina to highlight the challenge of life without high-speed Internet access.

Those human faces included a native American tribe lacking a critical link to economic opportunity, a farmer who uses dial-up to check prices while his daughter forages nightly for a broadband connection to do her homework, and a community building a computer lab with space for local businesses but still no high-speed connections.

Jen Howard, a spokeswoman for Free Press, said North Carolina was picked because it had been hard hit by the economy and because there was an “energetic group of citizens interested in talking about broadband,” not because it was the home state of former FCC chairman Kevin Martin, who defended the agency’s record of building out broadband under frequent criticism of the pace of that rollout.

Meanwhile, the FCC, NTIA and RUS will meet tomorrow (March 10) to discuss the way forward for broadband deployment, the first of what is described as several public meetings.

 

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