Many Voices, Many Eyes Needed

By Charles Benton

On March 5, the Benton Foundation sent a number of questions to the Federal Communications Commission, the Department of Agriculture, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration at the Department of Commerce -- the lead agencies implementing the broadband provisions of the stimulus law, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), recently signed by President Barack Obama. The agenda for the March 10 joint public meeting of these agencies invites these questions, so I hope you will contact the government at this crucial moment in planing for the broadband grant, loan, loan guarantee, and mapping initiatives outlined in the stimulus law. The success of these programs may very well determine the quality of our telecommunications system for the 21st century.

As you probably already know, the ARRA is a massive, sweeping law with many provisions related to telecommunications. Most importantly, the law allocates billions of dollars for investment in broadband, which I and many others believe is the future of telecommunications in America. The law will make possible:

  • extending broadband services to unserved and underserved communities across the country, so that rural and inner-city businesses can compete with any company in the world,
  • creating and maintaining a comprehensive nationwide inventory map of existing broadband service from both commercial and public providers, and
  • perhaps most importantly, a National Broadband Strategy, aimed at extending the reach of broadband Internet access to all Americans.

With the quality of our telecommunications system for the 21st century at stake, Federal policymakers need to hear not just from the telecommunications industry. They need to hear from you.

The law wisely recognizes that broadband deployment is not an ends in itself but an enabler for meeting many of the most pressing challenges before us. The National Broadband Strategy, then, is to include the use of broadband in homeland security, community development, health care delivery, energy independence and efficiency, education, worker training, private sector investment, entrepreneurial activity, job creation and economic growth.

But as good as the broadband provisions in the law are, the devil is in the details. With a clear stake in the outcome, the telecommunications industry is representing itself in meetings and missives delivered to policymakers. The public interest community must do the same. Free Press has already taken a lead in publishing Putting the Angels in the Details: A Roadmap for Broadband Stimulus Success . But policymakers need to hear from you, too.

For our part, the Benton Foundation assumes that, at this juncture, policymakers are assembling a master checklist, if you will, of issues that need to be addressed in the implementation of the ARRA. We want policymakers to know:

  • that we are actively watching/engaging in the implementation of the law,
  • what public interest issues implementation raises in our eyes, and
  • that we expect these issues to be dealt with in a timely fashion.

We have many, many questions, so here's just a few:

  • What are the agencies' working definitions of "unserved" and "underserved" areas? Will NTIA, FCC and RUS adopt the same definition for these terms? Will the agencies use the same data to determine where these areas are located? What agency will collect that data? How and when? How will the definition of "unserved" and "underserved" areas impact the ability of the NTIA to facilitate access to broadband service by low-income and other vulnerable populations
  • What are NTIA's and RUS's plans for outreach to potential applicants, particularly non-profits, and socially and economically disadvantaged small businesses?
  • How will the NTIA and the FCC define the nondiscrimination contractual conditions of Sec 6001(j)? Will the NTIA and FCC issue a Notice for public comment? Will NTIA mandate that applicants and grantees disclose network management techniques, if any?
  • How will NTIA demonstrate that the broadband programs fulfill the purpose of the ARRA?
  • How will NTIA and UDSA evaluation processes enable researchers to appraise short term results and identify best practises?
  • How will NTIA spend the $350 million allocated to implement the Broadband Data Improvement Act?

As I say, we have many questions and we hope you'll add more to the mix. To add your voice, simply e-mail your questions to:

Barbara Brown
National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)
[email protected]

Christi Shewman
Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
[email protected]

Mary Campanola
Department of Agriculture (USDA)
[email protected]

And we'll be watching. To follow the implementation of the ARRA visit http://www.benton.org/node/20455