Lawmaker Questions Gov't Money for Broadband Roll out

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Even though she has constituents in her congressional district who want broadband but can't get it, Representative Marsha Blackburn suggested Thursday that government should have little to no role in stimulating broadband deployment.

Blackburn, speaking at a communications policy forum, held a telephone town meeting Wednesday evening, and one woman called in to complain that broadband service stopped a mile from her house. The constituent, living in a rural area, complained that she was "on the dial-up," and her continuing efforts to convince a broadband provider to offer service have been rebuffed, said Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican.

"I need high-speed Internet delivered to my home, and I'm tired of waiting," Blackburn quoted the woman as saying.

Asked if the U.S. government should provide money to reach people like her constituents, Blackburn said no. A US$787 billion economic stimulus package that was passed by Congress earlier this month included $7.2 billion for broadband deployment to rural and other underserved areas, but Blackburn was critical of the legislation.

If more people in the constituent's area demand broadband, a provider will bring it to them, Blackburn said. "That is where I think we do let the market handle the job," she said. "I fully believe that the market can work this out."

Blackburn criticized the broadband money in the stimulus bill, saying it came with too many strings attached. More than half of the money includes net-neutrality regulations prohibiting companies receiving broadband grants from discriminating against some Internet traffic and from refusing to connect with other providers.

New neutrality regulations, supported by President Barack Obama, could slow deployment and inhibit broadband competition in the long run, she said. She called the policy "short-sighted."

Competition among providers will work out any problems with some blocking or slowing Web content, she said. "There is diversity of opinion, diversity of content and media platforms to distribute hat content than at any other time in history," she said.

Blackburn also noted that the federal government hasn't determined what areas of the country are not covered by broadband. Money for broadband mapping was included in the stimulus package.

Blackburn found little disagreement with her net-neutrality views at a panel discussion following her speech at a communications conference hosted by conservative think tank, the Free State Foundation. The panel included four large broadband and wireless providers and two conservative professors, but no strong net-neutrality advocates.

Advocates of net-neutrality rules say they are necessary to preserve an open Internet where customers can find the content of their choice. Broadband providers may be tempted to give higher priority to content provided by themselves or partners, net-neutrality advocates say, and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has already sanctioned Comcast for slowing P-to-P (peer-to-peer) traffic in the name of network management.

But representatives of Comcast and Verizon seemed to disagree with Blackburn about the role of government in broadband deployment. Many of the remaining areas of the country without broadband are "very expensive to reach," said Thomas Tauke, executive vice president for policy at Verizon. In those cases, there is a role for government subsidies, he said.

A year ago, broadband providers would have been "ecstatic" to hear that Congress was planning to provide a "couple hundred million" dollars for broadband deployment to rural areas, Tauke said.

It was "very heartening" to see Obama's first move on broadband policy was to provide funding for grants to areas unserved, added Joseph Waz, senior vice president for external affairs at Comcast.

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