Groups want open access in stimulus-funded broadband

Consumer groups want the Commerce Department to put open-access conditions on the $7 billion in economic stimulus funds for building new broadband networks.

The consumer groups want the department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to require that any broadband networks funded by the stimulus law be open to all traffic. However, carriers say such provisions are counterproductive and hurt the goal of building networks quickly.

In approving the broadband funding, Congress said the networks must be nondiscriminatory and connect with other networks, but lawmakers left it to regulators to define and enforce those policies.

Consumer groups, including Free Press and Public Knowledge, contend that strict definitions of nondiscrimination are needed to ensure that the broadband networks are open to all content.

“We are participating in a milestone event in Internet policy-making,” said Ben Scott, policy director at Free Press, at an NTIA-sponsored roundtable discussion March 23. “It is not only fitting and proper that we should firmly protect the open Internet built with taxpayer dollars — it is essential if we are to honor the dual goals of economic stimulus and public service required by the law. "

“The [stimulus law] commands the Rural Utilities Service to give priority to applicants that will deliver consumers a choice of more than one service provider,” said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge. “We see no reason why NTIA should not do the same. Thus, we ask that NTIA prioritize projects that build shared infrastructure.”

Meanwhile, lobbyists for carriers argue that providers might not apply for the NTIA broadband grants if the administration adopts stronger nondiscrimination and interconnection rules. They also contend that spending time writing detailed new regulations isn't necessary and will dampen the effects of the stimulus.

In a related development, several consumer groups, including Common Cause, urged the federal government to take the lead role in the $350 million broadband mapping program required under the stimulus.

The groups are concerned about potential telecommunications industry participation in the mapping through an organization named Connected Nation.

“In order to be effective, a national broadband data-collection and mapping exercise should be conducted by a government agency, on behalf of the public, with as granular a degree of information as possible and be totally transparent so that underlying information can be evaluated,” several consumer groups said in a report released March 23.

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