Friday, April 3, 2009

Chairman Boucher: "Data Collected With Public Money Will Be Public"

Chairman Rick Boucher
(Photo: Consumer Electronics Association) 04/03/09 Boston -  Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, yesterday opened the first congressional oversight hearing on the broadband stimulus provisions of the American Recovery and Renewal Act of 2009 (ARRA).

Boucher and his Subcommittee called 7 witnesses to testify on the funding and targeting strategies of the federal programs which will administer the total of $ 7.2 Billion in federal stimulus monies for broadband deployment.

Witness testimony and Member questions focused on 2 elements of the federal package for stimulating broadband: the prioritization on "underserved" vs. "unserved" communities, and the proprietary vs. public nature of broadband data.

The "underserved" vs. "unserved" debate pitted Members from rural districts against more urbanized jurisdictions, respectively. As we have written in a previous post, the rural / urban policy division over broadband incentives emerged in the drafting of the stimulus package itself. Several advocates and state officials sought to centralize all new broadband programs within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). Members representing rural districts however won that skirmish, with $2.5 Billion in stimulus funds being appropriated to the Rural Utilities Service of the Department of Agriculture (USDA-RUS).

While the Committee reached no consensus on the underserved vs. unserved debate, Boucher set down his markers on the issue with language that is anathema to the large telephone companies and cable operators. As he read into the record from his prepared statement, "...we should not equate underserved only with the absence of competition. Underserved can also refer to communities with inadequate broadband speeds. ...Finally, communities where broadband is only available at unreasonably high prices should also be considered underserved."

The telcos and the cable multiple system operators (MSO) have consistently stated that no government funds should be used to subsidize any form of "overbuild" of their existing networks. Community broadband and digital divide activists have countered that the current array of service offerings from these providers is inaccessible to large portions of America's urbanized population, due to high cost barriers. Dr. Nichol Turner-Lee, a witness representing the One Economy non-profit community development organization, directly addressed this economic reality stating in her testimony, " Free or low cost provision of broadband services should be made available to communities in need without reducing quality of service or content offerings."

Boucher has now clearly stated that such communities should be considered "underserved". There is little doubt that the 3 agencies represented at the Hearing, NTIA, USDA-RUS, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will now consider that definition as being a policy directive from one of the key congressional figures overseeing their work.

The otherwise arcane issue of proprietary data has become an extremely controversial facet of the entire national broadband policy agenda. Incumbent telephone carriers and cable system operators have been reluctant to disclose detail-level data on what specific broadband network "facilities" exist in which jurisdictions.

One prominent broadband advocacy group Connected Nation, partially funded by incumbent telcos, has been heavily criticized by leading national broadband advocacy groups for adopting broadband data collection schemes that shield carrier data from disclosure. Three organizations published a report outlining this substantial charge against Connected Nation last month.

Referencing the stimulus bill's appropriation of $350 Million for broadband mapping, Boucher firmly laid out position on the collection and use of data: "
I expect that any data collected with public money will be available to the public.” That one statement, if carried out by the 3 federal agencies as the broadband mapping funds are dispersed, will be seen as the end of the Connected Nation approach. This becomes a particularly pressing item as Connected Nation states it is working directly with 6 states that 14 states have adopted its "Connect" model.

Boucher used the privilege of the Chair to host as a witness one of his own constituents who demonstrated the failure of the FCC's zip code based broadband sampling metric. County Supervisor John Large of rural Patrick County, located in Boucher's Virginia 9th Congressional District, gave testimony which directly demonstrated that many areas of his jurisdiction are considered well served by broadband providers, as per the FCC methodology. The point of his testimony however was the lack of broadband facilities serving many of his constituents in those same jurisdictions.

Our advice to Connected Nation, and its telco supporters: When a powerful congressional committee chair thinks you are acting against the interests of his own constituents, and has them testify to that effect, you lose.

The hearing, which lasted 4 hours and 30 minutes, and was entitled "Oversight of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009: Broadband,” is available via audio recording at
the Hearing's site here.
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