Republican Lawmaker: Gov't Broadband Programs Aren't Needed

U.S. government programs to help pay for broadband deployment and to subsidize its cost for customers aren't needed, in part because many residents of rural areas in the U.S. don't want broadband, one Republican lawmaker said Thursday.

Representative Joe Barton, who represents a district south of Dallas, was among the Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who questioned the need for programs at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to encourage broadband adoption and deployment.

Only about 5 percent of U.S. households don't have access to broadband, and many of those households are in rural areas, Barton said during a hearing of the committee's communications and Internet subcommittee.

"My guess is they live in rural areas because they want to," Barton said. "It's at least possible that they don't want all the encumbrances and accoutrements of the modern Internet Age. So even if we forced it on them, they probably wouldn't take it."

Some rural residents would subscribe to broadband if it were available, said Barton, the committee's ranking Republican. But Barton questioned whether the FCC should spend money on broadband programs, with broadband available to about 95 percent of U.S. households and about two-thirds of households subscribing to broadband.

The FCC's national broadband plan, released in March, would redirect US$15.5 billion over 20 years from the Universal Service Fund (USF), which now subsidizes traditional telephone service, to broadband deployment. The plan also has several programs designed to encourage broadband adoption, including a nationwide Digital Literacy Corps.

Barton, however, questioned whether the FCC should have spent $20 million to create its national broadband plan, which was mandated in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed early 2009. That money could have gone to other needs, he said.

"We've got a broadband deployment program right now -- it's called free enterprise," Barton said. "This is a solution that's looking for a problem that I don't believe exists."

Wally Bowen, executive director of the nonprofit broadband provider Mountain Area Information Network, based in Asheville, North Carolina, and community broadband consultant Craig Settles disagreed with Barton's view on a lack of demand for broadband in rural areas.

About a year ago, a library in Mars Hill, North Carolina, decided to shut down its Wi-Fi service after hours because of safety concerns, Bowen said. Drivers wanting to connect to the Wi-Fi service were clogging the street beside the library, he said.

"It's kind of a stunning comment," Bowen said of Barton. "I question whether he's really in touch with his rural constituency."

Settles agreed. "Clearly, Representative Barton has no direct contact or understanding of the broadband needs of those living in rural communities," said Settles, president of Successful.com. "Representative Barton is merely parroting the talking points of [broadband] incumbents in an effort to derail the government's efforts to meet rural communities' pressing demands that those incumbents are uninterested in or are unable to address."

In many areas where broadband providers say they provide coverage, there is bad service and poor quality, Settles added. "I'm doing a needs assessment in a business community that technically has six or seven providers offering access," he said. "But the complaints, which we have in writing, are numerous regarding price, dropped connections, unwillingness of providers advertising coverage to actually deliver it after companies request it, and other issues."

Some other Republicans from the subcommittee also questioned the need for new broadband programs. Nonprofit organizations such as Connected Nation are already helping to bring broadband to rural areas and driving up the adoption rates in many states, said Representative Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican.

"We don't need the government to go set up a Digital Literacy Corps," he said.

Other lawmakers, including some Republicans, said government broadband programs are needed.

One of the major reasons people don't subscribe to broadband is the cost, and Congress and the FCC can help by restructuring the Lifeline and Link-up programs in USF to pay for broadband, said Representative Doris Matsui, a California Democrat. In September, Matsui introduced a bill that would require the FCC to establish a broadband assistance program for low-income people by expanding the Lifeline program.

"In today's economy, the Internet has become a necessity," she said. "If you don't have it, you're simply at a competitive disadvantage."

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