A U.S. government agency overseeing about US$4.7 billion in broadband deployment incentives will slow down the process of bringing access to new areas of the country if it imposes new net neutrality and interconnection rules, representatives of broadband providers said Monday.
But consumer advocates at a public hearing on broadband money included in a recently passed U.S. economic stimulus package called for the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to create substantial net neutrality and interconnection rules for organizations that receive the funds.
The U.S. government needs to ensure the money is spent wisely and benefits the public, said Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, a media reform group. "The federal government is not a charity; it is an investor," Scott said. "What's more, it is a socially responsible investor. Taxpayers put money into broadband infrastructure only insofar as it serves the public interest. It's not a blank check."
When the U.S. Congress passed the economic stimulus bill in mid-February, it required the NTIA and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to come up with "nondiscrimination and network interconnection obligations" for organizations that take broadband money from the NTIA. The NTIA was budgeted $4.7 billion of the $7.2 billion that the economic stimulus package included for broadband deployment, with the rest of the money going to the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
While the FCC already has interconnection rules and net neutrality guidelines in place, the new rules should go further, said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a digital rights group. The FCC allows broadband providers to use "reasonable" network management techniques to manage traffic, but Sohn called on NTIA to pre-approve any network management practices used by recipients of the NTIA grants.
The current FCC net neutrality guidelines don't address cases where broadband providers prioritize some types of Web traffic over other types, Sohn said. The FCC rules allow broadband customers to access any legal Web content and attach any legal devices to the network.
Sohn also called on the NTIA to require that grant recipients share their lines with competitors at reasonable rates and to require wireless carriers to allow interconnection with reasonable roaming rates.
But representatives of broadband-provider trade groups urged the NTIA to keep its rules minimal. The goal of the economic stimulus package was to create jobs and help improve the U.S. economy, and a lengthy debate over rules would delay those objectives, said Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA, a trade group representing wireless carriers.
"The goal is to stimulate the economy and stimulate broadband deployment to underserved and unserved areas, not spend the next several months debating these issues ... in tortured detail," he said.
More rules would slow down the economic benefits in the stimulus bill as well as broadband rollout, added Jonathan Banks, senior vice president for law and policy at the United States Telecom Association. The areas of the U.S. without broadband are often remote or mountainous regions where the costs of building and maintaining networks will be "very, very high," he said.
"What we're talking about is building broadband networks and connecting broadband users that are among the most difficult to serve," Banks added. "The idea that we should layer additional or unknown regulations on top of the task of the people who will be getting this grant money is, I think, troubling at best."
Jim Stevens, of Village Telecom Management Services in Alaska, suggested that satellite-based service may be the only way to reach some remote areas of the country. Some satellite services have limited bandwidth and need to prohibit bandwidth-heavy applications such as peer-to-peer services, potentially violating net neutrality rules, he said.
Banks agreed, noting that some wireless broadband providers may also have limited bandwidth.
But Sohn predicted no shortage of organizations that will be interested in the broadband grants. "I don't share [the] fear that nobody's going to apply for these grants because of a strong openness requirement," she said. "I think there's going to be people beating down the doors for the money, they'll comply with strong openness requirements, and we'll all be happy."