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December 30, 2008 7:44 AM

All Signs Point To Rural Fiber Fund

In creating the Rural Fiber Fund I've been reading a lot of articles about the economic stimulus package, in particular what the administration is looking for it to accomplish.

Like this: "Most economists agree that an anti-recession program should achieve three goals: Pump money into the economy. Save existing jobs and create new jobs. And help those in greatest need," from HuffingtonPost.com.

Three goals and three checkmarks on the RFF's list as it loosens up private capital and spurs investment; helps communities retain, attract, and grow businesses while also creating jobs to deploy fiber; and it serves the rural areas that are most in need of this connectivity.

Some suggest a direct understanding of the economic value of laying fiber: "John Skowron, a federal and state consultant at Deloitte, said he sees Obama's broadband initiative as part of a larger infrastructure improvement project, a la President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Only this time, the government will hire as many people to lay fiber as concrete," from Government Technology Magazine.

But others still don't quite seem to get it, like this Washington Post article from Larry Summers, who will head the White House National Economic Council in the Obama administration.

In it he writes: "As difficult as these conditions are, however, the Obama administration also inherits an economy with great potential for the medium and long terms. Investments in an array of areas -- including energy, education, infrastructure and health care -- offer the potential of extraordinarily high social returns while allowing our country to address some long-standing national challenges and put our economy on a solid footing for years to come.
The Obama plan represents not new public works but, rather, investments that will work for the American public. Investments to build the classrooms, laboratories and libraries our children need to meet 21st-century educational challenges. Investments to help reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil by spurring renewable energy initiatives (many of which are on hold because of the credit crunch). Investments to put millions of Americans back to work rebuilding our roads, bridges and public transit systems. Investments to modernize our health-care system, which is necessary to improve care in the short term and key to driving down costs across the board.
The president-elect has insisted that investments proposed in the recovery plan meet standards much higher than has been traditional. There will be no earmarks. Investments will be chosen strategically based on what yields the highest rate of return for the economy and monitored closely not just by officials but also by the public as government becomes more transparent. We expect to evaluate and to be evaluated rigorously to ensure that Washington is held accountable for how tax dollars are spent."

Notice that not once does he mention either broadband or fiber, yet I can't help but see it implied, either intentionally or not, as how else are we going to achieve the goals of modern healthcare and education systems and a green economy?

Full fiber deployment most definitely delivers "extraordinarily high social returns." It will without a doubt "put our economy on a solid footing for years to come." And I'm willing to argue with anyone that spurring the deployment of fiber will "yield the highest rate of return for the economy," certainly moreso then trying to maintain the status quo or building more roads will.

And this Wired article lays out a strong case primarily that we need more data but also asking the larger question of: "But how do we make sure that the billions aren't spent creating the 21st century equivalent of ditches to nowhere?"

Yet unfortunately it appears the author hasn't read our initial proposal for the RFF as they lament the situation more than recognize the opportunity that's possible through pragmatic broadband policy: "Billions for a better internet, sure -- but in absence of some real data, some real experiments, and some real verifiable science, that money is likely to be wasted or simply handed off to big telecom companies that have already proven they aren't in any hurry to wire us up to future."

What continues to amaze me is how aligned the goals of the Rural Fiber Fund are with those of the economic stimulus package. I can't tell you how many times I've read about Obama's interest in bringing broadband to rural America, but alongside that is almost always concern that no one yet has a plan for how to do this. And even those plans that have been proposed either don't provide enough detail or their potential efficacy is dubious at best.

That's why I'm more excited then ever that the time is ripe for the creation of the Rural Fiber Fund. Through this mechanism the economic stimulus package can have a profound immediate and long-term impact on the health of rural economies.

Bringing broadband to rural America is not an insurmountable problem. All we need are sound, commonsense policies that enable all those that are ready, willing, and able to deploy fiber into the country. And that's precisely what the Rural Fiber Fund is going to deliver.

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