Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Broadband stimulus funds insufficient -- but agreement ends there

It seems everyone agrees that the $7.2 billion in subsidies set aside in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 for broadband infrastructure construction aren't anywhere close to what's needed to overhaul the U.S. telecommunications infrastructure to allow it to support ubiquitous next generation, Internet-Protocol-based telecommunications.

Blair Levin, the Federal Communications Commission's broadband czar, described the stimulus subsidies just days before President Barack Obama took office in January as a down payment, representing only a portion of the new administration's planned efforts.

This week, the Boston-based Yankee Group concurred, issuing a summary of a study concluding the $7.2 billion figure is woefully inadequate, representing less than a third of the needed investment.
The Yankee Group study also reinforces the FCC's own findings. In a Sept. 29 news release, the FCC declared $7.2 billion in grants and loan subsidies contained in the economic stimulus package "are insufficient to achieve national purposes." The FCC said $20 billion would be the price of a minimum "basic" broadband that would be quickly outmoded.

The Yankee Group put the minimum figure close to the FCC's: $24 billion. Either of these figures would represent a wasteful investment in technology that would soon be obsolete. The FCC's $20 billion would achieve connectivity ranging between 768 Kbs -- already outmoded -- and 3 Mbs, which is on the verge of obsolescence given the growing amount of high bandwidth video content. To bring the U.S. where it needs to be for the future -- fiber to the premises providing throughput of 100 Mbs or better -- the FCC puts the number at $350 billion.

Behind the consensus that more money is needed beyond the $7.2 in the stimulus package is disagreement over where it will come from and under what terms. Splits exist even within the Obama administration. Earlier this month Levin was quoted in Multichannel News telling an FCC meeting that private investment -- and not by implication federal subsidies -- would foot the bill. But just four months earlier, Jim Kohlenberger, chief of staff for the White House’s Office of Science and Technology, said private market failure has hamstrung telecom infrastructure investment.

The private sector -- largely represented by the legacy telco/cable duopoly and their astroturf groups -- is firing warning shots across the bow of the FCC as it readies a major regulatory policy recommendation due to Congress in February. They are sending the message that unless they can invest in infrastructure on their own terms and retain control over it, further investment will be jeopardized. That will lead to a reverse stimulus, eliminating rather than creating jobs, the Internet Innovation Alliance warned Oct. 20.

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