Doubts about Broadband Stimulus

The New York Times has a front page story today on the broadband stimulus bill which features an extensive quote from Brett:

Critics like Mr. Glass say the legislation being developed in Congress is flawed in various ways that could mean much of the money is wasted, or potentially not spent at all — arguably just as bad an outcome given that the most immediate goal of the stimulus measure is to pump new spending into the economy.

An “open access” requirement in the bill might discourage some companies from applying for grants because any investments in broadband infrastructure could benefit competitors who would gain access to the network down the line.

Meeting minimum speed requirements set forth in the House version could force overly costly investments by essentially providing Cadillac service where an economy car would be just as useful. And some worry that government may pay for technology that will be obsolete even before the work is completed.

“Really the devil is in the details,” Mr. Glass said. “Yes, there is $9 billion worth of good that we can do, but the bill doesn’t target the funds toward those needs.”

The bill is still very rough. Some critics cite the bill’s preference for grants to large incumbents, others highlight the amorphous “open access” provisions and the arbitrary speed provisions as weaknesses. The only interest groups that appear altogether happy with it are Google’s boosters, such as Ben Scott of Free Press. This is a flip-flop for Free Press, who only last week was urging members to call Congress and ask that bill be killed.

A particularly odd reaction comes from friend of the blog Jeff Jarvis, who took time out from pitching his love letter to Google What Would Google Do? to tear into the article’s sourcing:

I found myself irritated by today’s story in the New York Times that asks whether putting money from the bailout toward broadband would be a waste. The question was its own answer. So was the placement of the story atop page one. The reporter creates generic groups of experts to say what the he wants to say (I know the trick; I used to be a reporter): “But experts warn…. Other critics say…. Other supporters said…”

I wish that every time he did that, the words “experts,” “critics,” and “supporters” were hyperlinked to a page that listed three of each.

It’s an obvious case of a story with an agenda: ‘I’m going to set out to poke a hole in this.’

The odd bit is that five people are named and quoted, and the terms “expert” and “critic” clearly refer to these named sources. It’s boring to repeat names over and over, so the writer simply uses these terms to avoid the tedium. It’s clear that Brett and Craig Settles are the critics and experts. Jeff seems not to have read the article carefully and simply goes off on his defensive tirade without any basis.

It’s a given in Google’s world that massive government subsidies for broadband are a good thing because they will inevitably lead to more searches, more ad sales, and more revenue for the Big G. But while that’s clearly the case, it doesn’t automatically follow that what’s good for Google is good for America, so it behooves our policy makers to ensure that the money is spent wisely, without too many gimmicks in favor of one technology over another or too many strings attached that don’t benefit the average citizen.

Raising questions about pending legislation and trying to improve it is as American as baseball, and the article in the Times is a step in the right direction. It may not be what Google would do, but it’s good journalism.

I want to make sure that the broadband money is spent efficiently, so I would bag the open access requirement (nobody knows what it means anyway) and give credit all improvements in infrastructure that increase speed and reduce latency.

The bill needs to support all technologies that have utility in the Internet access space, wireless, coax, and fiber, but should encourage the laying of new fiber where it’s appropriate, and high-speed wireless in less-populated areas. Eventually, homes and businesses are pretty much all going to have fiber at the doorstep, but that doesn’t need to happen overnight.

One thought on “Doubts about Broadband Stimulus”

  1. Richard, you’re absolutely right when you say that “no one knows what ‘open access’ means anyway.” It’s even more ill-defined than “network neutrality!” Proof of this is that the reporter inserted the definition HE had first heard — that of sharing infrastructure — right below my quote when I specifically told him that the definition most commonly used for wireless (users bringing their own equipment) was completely different. I got some grumbles from acquaintances who thought that the definition was mine and not the reporter’s.

    The analogy of the economy car vs. the Cadillac WAS mine, though. I pointed out that the requirement for very high speeds to get access to certain funding was like satisfying a need for transportation by giving everyone a Cadillac when economy cars would be more efficient (and let you do it for more people). I also pointed out that slower broadband infrastructure can be easily upgraded, so that it was not wasteful to go with an incremental approach: deploy slower speeds initially to get more coverage and then upgrade the equipment on the ends of the fiber or buy the upgrade license for the microwave radio that let it go faster.

    I only hope that someone in DC listens. I’d really like to talk to a room full of Senators (or at least their aides) and make sure they knew what would be effective — directly from the mouth of someone whose mission is providing broadband to unserved areas.

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