New Coalition Drawing Up Nationwide Broadband Access Strategy

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By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 3, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama has said getting affordable high-speed Internet service to every American home would create jobs, fuel economic growth and spark innovation. Yesterday, representatives from technology and telecommunications companies, labor unions and public interest groups frequently at odds with one another agreed to provide the next president with a roadmap for how to accomplish those goals.

That map could include tax breaks, low-interest loans, subsidies and public-private partnerships to encourage more investments in upgrading and building out high-speed networks, representatives from Google, AT&T and public interest group Free Press said during a panel discussion on broadband policy that also served as a coming-out party for their newly formed coalition.

The details of how to meet those goals still must be worked out by the group, whose aim is to bring more affordable high-speed Internet access to every consumer.

Many of the group members have been at odds with each other on whether the government should set limits on how much spectrum a company can hold, the use of unlicensed devices on fallow broadcast airwaves and net neutrality -- the notion that network operators should be prevented from blocking or slowing Internet traffic. The formation of the group is an effort to move beyond their differences.

"The coalition is a positive in that it demonstrates we agree that we have a broadband problem, which not everyone was willing to admit to two years ago," said Ben Scott, policy director at Free Press and a member of the group. "The key is whether we'll see this group produce policy solutions that will require difficult choices."

At stake is the nation's ability to compete technologically and economically, the group said. The United States has dropped from the top 10 nations for broadband access, speeds and price in the last several years. The coalition is pushing for a federal plan that would provide access to high-speed Internet service, much as the government did with electricity, roads and phone service.

Obama famously used the Internet for outreach during his campaign and received 370,000 donations online. He's proposed using blogs, social networking tools and community Web pages known as wikis to connect citizens to government agencies. And Obama has argued for massive upgrades to technology infrastructure such as high-speed, or broadband, Internet.

So far the coalition's plans to increase broadband usage mirrors Obama's plan, but there could be disagreement over deployment, analysts said.

Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen said the union supports a proposal by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) to increase definitions for broadband to 10 megabits per second for downloads by 2010. The current definition for broadband speed in the United States is 768 kilobits per second downstream, which is far below standards in many other nations.

Achieving that goal at prices acceptable to consumers, however, would be expensive for telecom and cable network operators. Some in the coalition could push for laws that would achieve lower prices and higher speeds through more wireless and telecom competitors, but that could cause further disagreement among members, Scott said.

Some have already suggested requesting funds from the federal economic stimulus plan for broadband deployment. Yesterday, an aide to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Pelosi was in favor of that idea.

AT&T chief lobbyist Jim Cicconi said the company has moved closer to the view of public interest groups and Google that the Web should be open for all users without discrimination of technology and content on their network. But unlike Free Press and consumer groups, AT&T opposes new laws or rules on net neutrality, saying Federal Communications Commission rules are sufficient, and any violation should be handled on a case-by-case basis.

"There will be significant outstanding debates that will be very tough and there will still be daylight between the groups on many, many issues," said Rebecca Arbogast, an analyst at investment firm Stifel Nicolaus. "But both sides are in a phase right now where they are emphasizing how much they share in terms of their views on what is an appropriate framework for looking at this issue."


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