Very Good News On Broadband Stimulus — I Get My Herring!

After Blair Levin’s warning to the world (and the financial markets in particular) that the stimulus package will not try to solve the broadband problems in this country and that people needed to stop dreaming in the tens or even hundreds of billions for broadband, no one should be surprised at today’s announcement that the Administration/House proposal budgets $6 Billion for broadband primarily in the form of grants. (Obey press release on full package here.)

Thank God!

More below . . . .

There’s an old Jewish joke about how a Frenchman, a Pole, and Jew saved Napoleon’s life. Napoleon asks what they want as a reward. The Frenchman says his family were aristocrats before the revolution and he wants his family lands restored. “Granted,” says the Emperor. The Pole says he wants Poland liberated and her pre-partition borders restored. “Granted,” says Napoleon. The Jew says: “I want a real nice piece of herring.”

Napoleon stares, turns in disgust to one of his attendants, and says “get this man a nice piece of herring from the kitchen and then get him out of my sight.”

The Frenchman and the Pole turn to the Jew and laugh “You could have asked for anything! You idiot, that’s the Emperor of France! And you asked for a nice piece of herring!”

“Ha,” answered the Jew. “You think you’re so smart? I’m actually gonna get my herring.”

That’s about how I feel about the broadband stimulus package. Sure, I’d love to have had the feds build fiber out to every home. But I always knew that wouldn’t happen. Worse, I figured that any HUGE pot of money would invariably end up chock full of goodies for incumbents with zippo oversight. The old tried and true formula of putting money out like kids put out milk and cookies for Santa in the hopes that jolly old St. Seidenberg will festoon us with fiber, which has worked for us soooooo well in the past.

But a reasonable set of grant proposals, properly targeted, can do a boatload of good. Consider Mark Cooper’s community hotspot approach, for example, or the work of ongoing projects such as the Mountain Area Information Network in rural North Carolina or the Lawndale Community Wireless Network in Chicago or any of thousands of projects in hundreds of communities working to bridge the gap between connectivity and digital exclusion.

Certainly we have a lot of work to do to make this work for us rather than have it get sucked up by a bunch of parasites with great PR or artificially inhibited so that it can’t “compete with the private sector” (i.e., can’t actually provide any service or do squat except as a subsidy for incumbents). Just take a gander over at Universal Service Fund for what happens when you set up a program to give out money and then let the incumbents have a hand in structuring it. The folks at Free Press are already laying down a good marker of asking for public service and accountability conditions to go with the grants.

I’ll add that Waxman took this approach for HR 7000 last year. You want USF money for wireless? Than you and any parent or affiliate will provide reasonable roaming. Don’t like it? Don’t take money from the public trough. Same thing here. You want a taste of that broadband deployment money? Then you make sure we can tell how you are spending the public money so we can see if we get our money’s worth, and you operate your network in a way that promotes our policy of an open and transparent internet. Don’t want to do that? Then don’t take the money.

I’ll also add some recommendations for who should administer these grants. The Technology Opportunities Program (TOP) at Commerce has a long track record of funding programs intelligently that produced major bang for the buck. USDA’s broadband grant and loan program also did a nice job — including creating competitive providers until the incumbents had them neutered.

But I’d also like to put in a plug for the Office of University Partnerships over at Housing and Urban Development, especially the Community Outreach Partnership Center (COPC) program, which gave grants for universities and colleges to partner with local communities (agency report/promotional material here). Granted I am biased because the program was developed by my Mom, Dr. Marcia Marker Feld (Hi Mom!). But funneling stuff through HUD and Ag as well as through NTIA and other usual suspects such as NSF will make this a “two-fer” or possibly a “three-or-more-fer” by pushing multiple agendas at once. For example, funneling money through HUD — especially if it is through COPC — not only helps broadband deployment to underserved communities, it furthers the urban agenda, gives a boost to higher education, and hopefully moves it away from places where the parasites hoping to suck up broadband money for no return have been making themselves cozy for far too long.

And as Blair Levin made clear yesterday, this isn’t the end of the Administration’s commitment to broadband. We have a lot of stimulatin’ stuff we can do without spending more money — such as passing the Community Broadband Act to let local governments provide broadband service and freeing up more spectrum for unlicensed use.

So no bitching because the Administration didn’t want to spend $200 billion on fiber to the home. There are no short cuts in public policy, and if we want universal affordable broadband we will need to fight for it the hard way, not get it as manna from Heaven. In the meantime, let’s make sure those bastards don’t steal our herring.

Stay tuned . . . .

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