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April 13, 2009 9:25 AM

Dear RUS/NTIA: There Will Be Losers And That's OK

Just read through some of the other comments being filed for the BTOP program, and can't help but say this to our friends at RUS and NTIA: there will be losers in this process and that's OK.

I continue to be amazed at how many people, companies, and entities are trying to claim that it'd be a horrible thing if not every network operator could apply and how we want everyone and their mother to be putting in an application.

Even more galling as I've discussed before is how absurd it is to suggest that we shouldn't be requiring minimum speed levels just so that we can extend our arms wide enough to welcome all applications.

This is the absolute wrong way to go about thinking of these things.

First off, there's not enough money for everyone to get some, so it's unavoidable that there will be losers in this process.

Secondly, by setting the bar too low and allowing marginal applications the same opportunity as the best applications we're making life harder for RUS and NTIA as this creates more work for them to vet everything and more hassle weighing the relative merits of projects. But by raising the bar we can cut out a lot of the noise and allow them to focus on truly worthy projects.

Third, while some incumbents most definitely deserve subsidies to keep doing the good work they've already been doing, not every incumbent deserves subsidies. Put more bluntly, I can't see the sense in rewarding incumbent inaction with taxpayer-funded checks to keep doing business as usual.

Fourth, not every broadband technology deserves funding. By going overboard trying to be technologically neutral we risk funding dead-end technologies with no great hope for future development and giving subsidies to technologies that claim to deliver a certain speed but can't actually do so in a reliable way. Plus there's the likelihood that some of these dollars will go towards saddling unserved areas with last-generation technology, which will cement their position as second-class citizens in the Digital Age.

Fifth, not every municipality deserves funding, at least not right now. I'm not denigrating municipal broadband in general or any community in particular, instead I'm pointing out that there are a lot of places who haven't become serious about broadband until BTOP came along and therefore aren't likely ready to move forward quickly with deployment. Instead we should be rewarding those communities that already have their act together and that already have been working towards finding ways to wire themselves.

Now I should say that I'm a pragmatist at heart, and I do realize that by adding restrictions we reduce the pool of applicants which could potentially mean not having enough viable projects to fund. But I think it's irresponsible to assume that that's absolutely the case and therefore lower the bar for the quality of projects BTOP funds.

Instead I'd rather see us set a high bar that respects the public interest and see what applications show up. My guess is no matter how high it's set there'll still be plenty of projects to fund. But if not we can always lower that bar at a later date.

Getting back to the point of this post, we can't allow ourselves to set policy based on the lowest common denominator here. We can't feel sorry for those applicants who may lose out on eligibility because their projects aren't good enough. We can't worry about protecting private interests over elevating the public good.

It's unavoidable that there will be losers in this process. So instead of wasting our time making sure that everyone can play on their terms, let's focus on making sure that these limited funds go to the best possible projects that don't just deliver what private companies want to deploy but instead bring about the kind of connectivity that the public needs.

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