President Obama's call for widespread broadband deployment won its first congressional victory Jan. 22 when the House Committee on Energy and Commerce approved rules for $2.8 billion in government funding for high-speed Internet networks in unserved and underserved areas.
Recipients of the funding will be obligated to build or expand existing networks under open access and network neutrality rules, which mandate that operators open their networks to all devices like cell phones and laptops regardless of the manufacturer or provider, and prohibit discrimination in the type of traffic the network handles.
The stimulus bill contains $350 million to fund an Internet mapping program that was enacted in 2008.
The $2.8 billion approved late Jan. 21 by the House Appropriations Committee and the rules for the grants approved the Energy and Commerce Committee Jan. 22 are part of a planned $6 billion in Internet investments. The House's overall $825 billion economic stimulus plan is expected to hit the House floor for a vote the week of Jan. 26.
House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said the grants are aimed at "service providers, infrastructure companies, or a state or unit of local government." Major carriers like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast have long opposed network neutrality rules and have only recently and begrudgingly accepted the notion of open networks.
The wireless carriers' principal trade group, CTIA, urged lawmakers in a letter Jan. 21 to drop the open access provisions of the legislation, calling them "vague, undefined and unnecessary." The trade group suggested that the open access requirements would slow carriers' embrace of the grants.
"These are public dollars. Networks built with this funding should be open," Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said.
The legislation also sets minimum speeds for Internet connections and requires that 75 percent of the connections support enough speed to facilitate video conferencing.
"Both committees approved draft economic stimulus legislation leaving intact provisions that recipients of stimulus grant funds be required to follow build-out requirements, Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality guidelines and open-access requirements," Public Knowledge's Gigi Sohn said in a statement.
Sohn called the votes "forward-looking actions by these committees [and] ... the first steps to enacting President Obama's technology platform that will lead to putting Americans back to work, stimulating the economy and improving America's competitiveness."
The Computer & Communications Industry Association was equally effusive in its praise of the legislation.
"There are still too many communities that need not just physical access to high-speed broadband, but affordable access. This stimulus legislation can soon create jobs, and generate more online economic activity and opportunities for more Americans," Ed Black, CCIA's president and CEO, said in a statement. "The opportunity to participate in the digital economy via high-speed connections to the open, public Internet is fundamental to shared prosperity and democracy."