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March 20, 2009 3:02 PM

We Can't Let Protectionism Drive Broadband Policy

The most frustrating part of watching the public meetings on how NTIA and RUS should spend their broadband stimulus dollars is the relentless calls for protectionism from established service and technology providers.

Now of course it's not surprising that companies would be doing everything they can to shape how these dollars are distributed in their favor, but I'm getting somewhat worried that we're going to end up focusing too much on protecting private over promoting public interests.

For example, look at the discussion over how to define broadband. Each company/industry is trying to set the definition relative to their own technology, and a surprising number of them claim we shouldn't have any minimum speed threshold at all, as if bringing sub-1Mbps service will have any great impact on economic development (which it won't).

If we allow this to continue we're going to be permanently relegating un/underserved areas to being second-class citizens. We can't let private interests dictate what's best for the public good.

An even more direct example of private interests calling for protectionism is the suggestion that these dollars should only go where incumbent providers aren't lest we actually encourage competition in the broadband marketplace.

While I completely agree that we should avoid creating duplicative infrastructures, to suggest that anywhere that has any form of broadband is already well-served and in no need of a stimulus is pure protectionism that puts private interests over the public good.

And a final example is the suggestion that only those who are already offering service in an area are qualified to translate these stimulus dollars into deployment.

But how can this be in the public's best interest if the whole reason we need a stimulus is that the providers who are already there are doing an insufficient job? In no way am I speaking out against giving money to incumbent providers, just that attempting to give them priority to fix something that many of them either neglected or broke smacks again of protectionism.

Again, this is not a rant against private interests trying to position themselves at the front of the line to the government trough. It's perfectly understandable that they do that, and in many cases whoever's the incumbent provider may be the best recipient of government dollars.

But we can't let these private interests drive a debate that should be focused on the public good.

We can't limit ourselves to asking, "How much broadband can incumbent providers squeeze through their networks?" when we need to be asking, "How much bandwidth does the American public need to succeed in the 21st century?"

We can't worry so much about these dollars avoiding creating competition for incumbent providers that we rule out best-in-class applications that can push chronically underserved communities to the front of the digital pack.

We can't think that only those who have sunk investment in legacy networks can lead us into our broadband future when there may be far superior applications from new entrants ready to start moving.

If we want this broadband stimulus to have the biggest possible impact on moving our great nation forward, we can't let these important decisions about how to distribute funds be driven by protectionism over the public good.

These are our tax dollars at stake and we must be vigilant in insuring they're spent in our best interest.

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