President Obama has proposed a $6 billion fund designed to bring high-speed internet connections to underserved parts of the country. It’s one of several technology-related proposals in the $825 billion economic stimulus plan that is expected to be voted on this week.
The Obama administration’s push to get less-accessible areas properly wired is likely to strengthen the nation’s internal social, business and technological ties, and ultimately create jobs and revenue, according to a study prepared for the transition team and published earlier this month.
It’s similar to a move that the British government began to make in 2004, with the aim of using broadband internet connections to stimulate community interaction and rural business. In 2008 it seemed that the the government’s actions had been phenomenally successful, with rural areas actually outstripping net connectivity versus people living in towns. Of course, the population density and distribution is very different in the U.K. versus the U.S., but there is no reason the same sort of successes couldn’t be achieved.
The recipients of the administration’s tech-stimulus will be wired and wireless net providers, including cellphone networks. The funds will be administered by the Commerce Department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The conditions on accepting a grant contain a key line that’s got many people talking: It’s a requirement that anyone using a grant to provide improved internet access has to do so in a manner that supports “open source” access by any suitably equipped device, regardless of manufacturer.
The wireless companies’ advocacy group, the CTIA, is already calling for this aspect to be removed. It wants to protect the income streams of its members, as you might expect. Congresswoman Anna Eshoo’s response to the CTIA highlights the public-service aspect of the fund. “These are public dollars. Networks built with this funding should be open,” she says.
Open standards are crucial for this money to fall into the right hands and improve high-speed access in rural areas. If the government’s actions ended up tipping in the direction of particular service providers, it could run the risk of achieving an end-goal that’s not optimal for people living in those “under-served” areas. To that end, the Energy and Commerce Committee has already requested that the FCC revise the definition of “under-served” once a $350 million service mapping exercise has been carried out, with the goal of properly targeting people in remote areas.