NCTA: Broadband Funds Should Be Competitive, Technologically Neutral, and "Value Producing"

Cable industry weary of being required to partner with government for grant eligibility
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The cable industry wants to make sure that Congress and the National Telecommunications & Information Administration and the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service know exactly where the industry stands on handing out billions in broadband stimulus money, which is in line and ready to roll out service to areas that would not be economical to reach otherwise.

In a new paper, "Moving the Needle on Broadband: Stimulus Strategies to Spur Adoption and Extend Access Across America," that the NCTA is circulating on the Hill and to those agencies, the cable trade group outlined general principles, plus its own take on the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm to existing broadband networks.

The general principles are that the funds should be used to increase broadband adoption and use, that they should be competitively and technologically neutral, that they be "value-producing" projects that can be quickly implemented and that the grant process should be transparent and coordinated with other agencies.

The principles mirror those advocated by a representative of NCTA, as well as the satellite and wireless industries, in a meeting at NTIA Monday about how to hand out the $7.2 billion in broadband stimulus money that is divided between NTIA ($4.7 billion) and RUS ($2.5 billion).

Those industries are concerned about the possibility that they could be required to partner with government or other entities in order to be eligible for the grants. That's because as the stimulus law is written, only government, nonprofits and tribal entities are automatically qualified, while private companies have to meet a public interest threshold yet to be determined.

NCTA also argued that it would be in the public interest not to deploy the funds in a way that harms the existing networks that have invested "hundreds of billions of dollars" in broadband without any subsidies.

Echoing arguments it made when the bill was being debated in Congress, NCTA says that the priorities in awarding the grants should be building out un-served areas as job one, followed by helping underserved areas "acquire and to make effective use of broadband service where it is already available," which translates primarily into computer education and availability of computers. Only after that, and only if there is any money left, should the government worry about new service in underserved areas as defined by speeds below today's current generation of broadband service.

On the other side of those arguments are those who want the government to require industry to partner with states or localities in order to qualify for the grants and who want the definition of underserved to be about speed and price.

NTIA and RUS are in the process of coming up with definitions of underserved, openness and interconnection as they try to quickly implement the rules of the road for the grant program. They have only two years to get all the money allocated.

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