Free Press: US Should Spend $44 Billion on Broadband

The U.S. government should spend US$44 billion to improve its broadband infrastructure and extend broadband to rural and other underserved areas, a media reform advocacy group recommended Wednesday.

Free Press called on the U.S. Congress and President-elect Barack Obama to move quickly to approve new programs to roll out broadband. Earlier this month, Obama included broadband in his announcement of a plan for the largest government-funded infrastructure program since the interstate highway system in the 1950s. The new spending is necessary to stimulate the struggling U.S. economy, Obama said.

Free Press, one of several advocacy groups in Washington, D.C., calling for a new national broadband policy, recommended about a dozen new government programs to address broadband rollout in a report released Wednesday. The programs, costing $44 billion over three years, would "immediately create tens of thousands of new jobs in the telecommunications, manufacturing and high-tech sectors," the report said.

Representative Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, has predicted an infrastructure stimulus package costing about $600 billion. Asked if Congress might balk at $44 billion for broadband, Ben Scott, Free Press' policy director, noted that the group's proposal would make up a small fraction of the infrastructure stimulus package. "We think that would be money well spent," Scott said.

Members of Congress have talked about passing the infrastructure package in January, and Free Press would support quick action. While Free Press sees all of its recommendations as important, the priority should be to bring broadband to areas in the U.S. that don't yet have it, Scott said.

Among the Free Press recommendations:

-- $15 billion over three years for a Universal Service Broadband Infrastructure Fund, which would subsidize companies rolling out broadband in areas that do not now have it. Funding should only go to services providing at least 5 Mbits per second of broadband, with priority given to companies rolling out 50Mbps service, Free Press said.

-- $5 billion for a new Universal Service Mobility Infrastructure Fund, which would fund the deployment of wireless broadband networks to rural areas and along highway corridors.

-- $3 billion for a new E-Rate at home program. This program would be modeled after the E-Rate program providing Internet service for schools and libraries in poor areas, but would fund the purchase of laptops that can go home with students. The program would also fund the expansion of school and library WiFi networks out into the surrounding community.

-- $1.5 billion for accelerated tax depreciation of infrastructure purchased by broadband providers, and another $1.5 billion for tax credits to companies rolling out broadband to unserved and underserved areas.

"These policies will provide substantial economic relief to rural areas of America hit hardest by the current recession," the Free Press report said. "Increased broadband adoption ... will also substantially increase short-term consumer spending. And it will ensure long-term economic growth by bringing those on the wrong side of the digital divide into the digital economy."

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