Here's Yochai Benkler, one of the smartest people I know on the subject of policy and the Internet, talking about the broadband stimulus package in the US, and what effect it is likely to have. You can't tell the players without a scorecard, and this is that scorecard -- for example, did you know that the House proposal would give half the broadband money to the Secretary of Agriculture to spend (!?). Still, this looks like a remarkably sane and effective proposal. Good news for America.
The House bill also adds some explicit important definitions for understanding broadband. It defines "advanced broadband," for which 75% of the money is marked, as 45 Mbps downstream, 15 Mbps downstream. Now, I continue to be baffled about the willingness to formalize asymmetric speeds as the measure, but this is the first time any formal regulatory requirement has even begun to speak in 21st century terms about what counts as broadband. (The requirements from wireless and basic broadband are, as might be expected, lower, but still better than used now by the FCC.) These numbers will almost certainly anchor any future debate over the state of broadband deployment, which, in turn, could also affect the FCC's powers and responsibilities across all its broadband policy, including systems not funded by the stimulus. It also funds the NTIA to build capacity to actually study and benchmark broadband availability and performance, and requires the FCC to issue a broad strategic plan, within a year, for broadband deployment and use in the United States. The Senate bill, although it was stronger on the amount of money and the centralization of responsibility in the NTIA, is weaker and more vague on the access provisions. Still, it gives the NTIA the power to impose on any facilities at least partly funded by the stimulus funds conditions for interconnection and nondiscrimination. This is more vague. "Interconnection" can be interpreted much more narrowly than "open access," and "nondiscrimination" is looser than the direct reference to the FCC's policy. But together with the concentration of the 9 billion dollars in its hands, and the requirement that recipients of the funds do so through partnership with a state or municipality, this power will give the NTIA a much more powerful and interesting regulatory role than it has had in the past, in a context where we might actually see systems built with these funds in fact offer more open systems than those that the incumbents have been trying to build over the last few years. The Senate bill is also the first serious effort to invest in skills training and connecting the availability of physical infrastructure to programs to teach people how to use the systems. An incredibly important, and oft ignored, facet of the problem.
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