Broadband + rural = stimulus?


by Ann Treacy • Earlier this week President Elect Obama spoke about his stimulus package. He promised that this wouldn’t be just another public works program. He wants federal money to invest in infrastructure such as roads, bridges and broadband in rural areas. The goal is to expand “broadband lines across America, so that a small business in a rural town can connect and compete with their counterparts anywhere in the world.”

Blandin on Broadband offers information on broadband use, access, and trends especially in rural Minnesota. Sponsored by the Blandin Foundation and their Broadband Initiative.

So it’s great that he mentioned rural and broadband. I’ve posted articles on the number of jobs that will be created by a large scale broadband deployment project and the economic impact of broadband in a rural area. We love to see that. Well, it seems like we ought to love it – but some people have had some thought-provoking perspectives.

The Daily Yonder point out that broadband is all rural areas have seen or heard from Obama up to this point. Families cannot live on broadband alone. They are afraid that other rural needs are being forgotten. The example they give is the White House Task Force on Working Families. It includes the Secretaries of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, Commerce, as well as folks from the president’s economic team. But the Secretary of Agriculture was not included in the original announcement.

The good news is that there are members of Congress who are aware of this discrepancy and they are speaking up. As Daily Yonder notes, “Democratic Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (of South Carolina) leads several House Democrats who ‘are pushing for language in the economic stimulus package that will ensure that rural communities and more impoverished areas receive their fair share of development funds,’ according to Congress Daily.”

It will be telling to see how Obama is able to fit that perspective into his plan. I think/hope that there is room for such collaboration and expansion of his plan.

Art Brodsky at Public Knowledge has other concerns. The title of his post is a top off, Stimulus Package Shouldn’t Reward Bad Broadband Behavior. His concern is that we’re pouring more money into a solution that didn’t work the first time around. (I paraphrase hugely.) As with the Daily Yonder, he’s got a point. I’ve read several articles where Qwest has promoted Obama’s plan – including a local article in the West Central Tribune. (OK, promote is a little strong for the article – but I love to use MN examples.)

Brodsky points out that if underserved areas are going to be served then the local incumbents need to “clean up their acts, or they have to make way for others.” He also says the consumers need to benefit too – which sounds a lot like feedback on the big bank bailouts of late. (I have to add my own note to say that some incumbents are great.)

He suggested getting the FCC to open up competition by allowing for other companies to have access to the lines of telecom and cable companies through wholesale or line sharing. Also support for consumers and companies, like Lifeline or universal service, should be reconfigured to encourage broadband.

He offers a grant process too – but says we should open it up to anyone in underserved areas, including municipalities. Incumbents could qualify under conditions that could range from line sharing and wholesaling to build-out and data speed requirements with obligations to report publicly on deployment progress and location.

Finally he suggests that early adopter consumers get tax breaks too for upping their broadband orders. I love that. So we consumers get a bump and providers get a bump in demand.