Building A Broadband Bridge that Holds Weight

Megan Tady

Jay Foushee has called his local phone company in rural Roxboro, N.C., numerous times to plead for high-speed Internet service. 

Now that the ink is drying on the economic stimulus package, the difficult work of implementing this unprecedented broadband investment begins.

I keep getting, Well, it’s coming, it’s coming.’ And this has been going on for about three years now,” says Jay, a fourth-generation farmer whose family runs a 1,000-acre farm.

He isn’t alone. Where the Foushees live in Person County, population 37,356, 40 percent of households lack high-speed Internet access – relegating them to balky dial-up service.

That stat mirrors what’s happening across the country: Nearly 40 percent of the United States does not have broadband service. Whether because the physical infrastructure hasn’t been built to deliver high-speed Internet or broadband is simply priced too high, the digital divide in America is glaring, and its effects are being felt from rural outposts to inner cities. 

But Jay’s desperate phone calls may be over soon. In February, President Obama and Congress passed the $789 billion American Recovery & Reinvestment Act,” which includes $7.2 billion for broadband expansion across the country – meaning communities like Roxboro could finally be brought into the high-speed digital age.

Now that the ink is drying on the economic stimulus package, the difficult work of implementing this unprecedented broadband investment begins. 

This is an historic opportunity to upgrade our infrastructure –  – no small task. And the three federal agencies tasked with the job – the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) and the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) – are asking for public input through a series of public meetings.

Free Press, the nonprofit organization which employs me, has a few simple recommendations (PDF link) that can help the government navigate broadband expansion with transparency, accountability and an eye toward protecting the public interest. 

But first, a little background: The overarching goal of the new stimulus bill is to breathe new life into our flailing economy. The president and Congress are recognizing that funding broadband expansion has the potential to help revitalize local communities, and our national economy. A 2007 study (PDF link) by the Brookings Institution and MIT estimated that a one-digit increase in U.S. per-capita broadband penetration – the number of people who have high-speed Internet – creates an additional 300,000 jobs. If our broadband penetration were as high as a country like Denmark’s, we could expect approximately 3.7 million additional U.S. jobs.

The three federal agencies now must use the stimulus package signed by Congress to issue detailed rules, protocols and procedures on how to spend the billions. Internet service providers across the country, from large companies to local start-ups, will be appealing for grants, and these agencies will make the value judgments about what projects deserve funding. President Obama has given a Sept. 30, 2010, deadline for distributing the funds. 

With the clock ticking and corporate hands outstretched, it is imperative these agencies act quickly. But urgency without accountability will result in waste, fraud and abuse, and we can’t afford any missteps.

The public interest should guide these agencies as they work to put the angels in the details, by:

• Protecting the open Internet: The NTIA and FCC should only dole out grants to recipients who adhere to Net Neutrality – the principle that stops Internet service providers from discriminating against online content. 

• Promoting speed: Although the United States is the birthplace of the Internet, we’ve fallen woefully behind other countries in terms of broadband speed. The NTIA should establish speed guidelines and require grant applicants to detail how fast their networks actually will be. 

• Providing clarity: The definitions of unserved” and underserved” areas could be tricky. The NTIA and FCC should adopt definitions of these areas that are based on U.S. Census Bureau geographic boundaries (either census blocks, block groups or tracts) and are informed by newly collected FCC broadband data. 

• Preventing waste: The NTIA should require grant applicants to provide extensive documentation showing how their proposed project qualifies as a new investment that would not have been made without taxpayer support.

• Gathering information: The FCC’s past methods of mapping who has broadband have been lacking, and the agency has finally begun to change its ways. The FCC should continue on its path toward accuracy, as its data will inform the national broadband strategy. 

• Ensuring transparency: The NTIA and RUS should create a single, publicly accessible online database that hosts all the information relevant to the broadband projects funded by the Stimulus Act. 

The NTIA is holding public meetings this week and next week – -four in Washington, one in Flagstaff, Ariz, and one in Las Vegas. This poses an opportunity for the public to have a voice in helping to shape our broadband future and ensuring the government approaches broadband expansion with both urgency and care.

Can’t make it to a meeting? You can file your comment directly to the NTIA online – that is, if you have Internet access. And you can sign a petition urging the NTIA to only spend money on projects that abide by Net Neutrality principles.

Federal recognition that broadband investment is a vital public infrastructure marks a well-earned victory for those fighting to bridge the digital divide. Now let’s make sure that bridge holds weight.

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Megan Tady is a blogger and video producer for Free Press, the national nonprofit media reform organization. She writes a monthly InThe​se​Times​.com column on media issues. Follow her on Twitter: @MegTady.
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