Thursday, April 30, 2009

Matsui, Markey & Colleagues: Remember "Underserved' Areas

Rural vs. Urban in Broadband Funding Debate 04/30/09 Boston - Congresswoman Doris O. Matsui (D-CA), Congressman Edward J. Markey (D-MA), and 5 colleagues from the House Commerce and Energy Committee yesterday issued a joint letter calling on Obama Administration agencies to remember that Congress intended the broadband stimulus provisions of the federal Recovery Act to support urban underserved areas.

The powerful group of letter signatories clearly demonstrates that the political forces representing urban interests in Washington will demand, and we believe will receive, robust funding from the Act for stimulating broadband access and usage in urban communities underserved by broadband networks.

“While there is a strong focus in the ARRA on rural areas, we want to ensure that underserved urban areas are properly considered during the broadband grant process", wrote the Members. "Specifically, we request that low-income urban populations be considered as potentially underserved populations when you and your agencies develop the broadband grant programs and finalize the requirements for these programs.”

Joining Matsui and Markey were fellow Committee members Bobby Rush (D-IL), Michael Doyle (D-PA), Diana DeGette (D-CO), Kathy Castor (D-FL), and Donna Christensen (D-V.I.). All 7 signatories are members of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, now chaired by Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA).

Matsui's press release of yesterday states that she "initiated" the letter that was sent to the agency heads of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of the Commerce Department, and the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (RUS). John Eggerton of Broadcasting & Cable first reported the story yesterday.

The letter addresses a simple matter of arithmetic and law in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). The $4.7 billion appropriated to the
National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) within ARRA maybe be divided between rural 'unserved' and urban 'underserved' areas at the discretion of NTIA. Of the $2.5 billion allocated to RUS, 75% must be apportioned to rural areas. Broadband networks for rural unserved regions will cost tens of billions in capital expenditures (capex) from ARRA, and in operating subsidies for years going forward. The latter operating expenditure (opex) requirment of networks serving low customer densities gives impetus to Members and regulators attempting to reform the Universal Service Fund (USF) subsidy structure.

“To fully close the digital divide we must address the affordability of broadband for many low-income families,” the letter sent yesterday continued. “Although these families may have several different options for broadband access, they are underserved if none of these options are affordable. It is our hope that the grant programs will address this population to ensure that all Americans have the chance to benefit from ubiquitous broadband services.”

Matsui, representing the City of Sacramento and several Yolo County suburbs of the California capital city which comprise the Golden State's 5th congressional district, has had a remarkable rise through House ranks during her brief tenure. She was appointed to a coveted seat on Commerce and Energy last year, while the full Committee was still chaired by long serving Chairman John D. Dingell (D-MI). Dingell was famously dislodged as Chairman this year at the start of the 111th Congress, by Henry A. Waxman (D-CA). Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) had come to agree with a consensus in her Democratic Caucus that Dingell's continued 'no questions asked' defense of Detroit had become a political liability. Matsui, who took the seat of her late husband Congressman Robert Matsui in 2005, is demonstrating her own marked political skills.

Markey, representing the Massachusetts 7th congressional district comprised of both working class cities like Everett, Malden, Medford, and Waltham, and suburbs along Route 128 ("America's Technology Highway") filled with technology start-ups and stalwarts, had been the long term Chairman of the Subcommittee until this year.

He is most well known as being the father of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which spurred much of the Internet - telecom investment boom in the years 1997-2001. Now dean of the Massachusetts delegation, Markey was first elected to Congress in 1976, one year before his colleague from the neighboring Massachusetts 8th district, Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, became Speaker of the House for 10 years.

With the beginning of the current 111th Congress, Markey vacated the chairmanship of the communications Subcommittee, passing the gavel to long time colleague Rick Boucher. Importantly, Markey simultaneously was appointed Chairman of the new House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, and Chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment under the full House Commerce Committee, chaired by Waxman.

Although signed by only 7 Members, the letter represents a powerful statement by a powerful bloc in the House. It reminds us, as we have all spent so much time digging into the details of rural broadband deployment, about a collateral set of priorities. These policy priorities recognizing unserved populations will be addressed by ARRA financed programs, and by the FCC in the new National Broadband Plan also mandated by the Act. Thanks to the Act, rural broadband will prosper like the nation has not seen previously. At the same time, monies will flow from Washington for computer literacy, rewiring of libraries, schools, community centers, and yes even urban wireless models (if someone can frame one that works), for cities around the country.

Our Take: Urbanized precints of the nation have comprised the geographic backbone of the Democratic Party since the New Deal. With Democrats now in control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Obama Administration will recognize Members of Congress calling for policies which support that constituency. The Members that signed yesterday's letter to the federal agencies, particularly Chairman Markey, have the clout and connections to make their collective voice heard.
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