Broadband stimulus passes its first hurdle

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce has approved $2.8 billion for broadband infrastructure grants

The House committee on Energy and Commerce , which has oversight on broadband and energy matters, approved its portion of the Economic Recovery Legislation this week.

The broadband components of the legislation which is over 200 pages give the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) authorization to allocate $2.85 billion for wireless and wireline broadband through a program of grants.

[ Last year, InfoWorld pondered if the U.S. needs a new broadband policy | Barack Obama had been including support for broadband rollout funding in his stimulus package since early this month ]

The entire legislation is expected to come to a floor vote in mid-February.

Approximately $1 billion will be targeted for wireless service with a goal that 25 percent of the $1 billion go to unserved areas and the remaining 75 percent for the advancement of broadband in underserved areas of the country.

The provision requires those that receive grants to lay out a broadband infrastructure to do so in a way that is technologically neutral.

Grantees will be required to “provide access to the supported infrastructure on a neutral, reasonable basis to maximize use.”

The wording appears to support one aspect of what is called net neutrality.

Net neutrality has come to mean everything from opposing additional fees for better quality of service to network accessibility by competing content deliver services.

President Obama has stated that he favors net neutrality, but net neutrality  is not supported by most of the carriers.

According to news reports, Steve Largent, president of the Cellular Telecommunications Internet Association  (CTIA) also sent a letter to Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman  stating that carriers would be hesitant to participate in the grant program unless the FCC more clearly defines what it means by “open access,” another term that has many definitions.

According to the legislation, open access would ensure that private entities cannot restrict any content deemed lawful “that flows through taxpayer-funded broadband facilities.”

The CTIA has also been lobbying on behalf of the carriers for what is called a “shot-clock” approach to putting up towers and antennas to improve wireless access.

Under shot-clock, a municipality would be required to approve a site within 75 days of an application. Currently, tower and antenna approval can take years as it works its way through various environment impact studies and public hearings.

The current legislation also calls for the NTIA to set minimum speed requirements for unserved and underserved areas, “reflecting what is technologically and economically feasible.”

The bill, in fact, sets specific benchmarks for “advanced broadband service” as delivering data to an end-user at a speed of at least 45 Mbps downstream and 15 Mbps upstream.

The term “advanced wireless broadband service” is defined as data transmitted at a speed of at least 3 Mbps downstream and at least 1 Mbps upstream, “over an end-to-end internet protocol wireless network.”

Basic broadband service is defined as delivering data to the end-user at least 5 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream.

The legislation states that almost any entity is eligible to apply for a grant, including satellite companies.

Although the entire stimulus package is on a fast track to a full vote in the House and Senate, some provisions in the broadband component appear to be less hurried.

For example, it requires states to create a broadband inventory map of the United States that “identifies and depicts the geographic extent to which broadband service capability is deployed and available from a commercial provider or public provider throughout each state. However, the NTIA is being given two years after the enactment of the Act to create the inventory map according to the proposed legislation.

The bill does appear to go a long way toward keeping the public informed of broadband progress. It requires the NTIA to create a Web site that lists eligible entities that have applied for a grant, the areas the entity proposes to serve, plus the status of each application.

States will have 75 days after the legislation is approved to indicate what areas have the greatest priority for broadband.