Sunday, December 28, 2008

How Can the Stimulus Plan Help the Internet?

With over a trillion dollars expected to be doled out in the first weeks of the Obama Administration, it only makes sense that any money set aside for "infrastructure improvements" include making the internet - as vital to our economy as any other industry in existence - more reliable, more secure, and more universally accessible in terms of broadband access.

But as with every part of the expected stimulus plan, the money ought not to simply be spent, but be spent wisely.

To that end, not everyone agrees on how to spend internet infrastructural funding in the most effective way. As this Wired article describes, several plans have recently emerged:

There are many urging that the $800 billion or so economic stimulus plan include money for broader broadband. Higher education IT consortium EDUCAUSE suggests $100 billion (.pdf) be spent on fat fiber optic links to homes, while FreePress, a net neutrality advocacy group, has a $44 billion plan. For its part, the FCC has a pending proposal to open a swath of the airwaves dedicated to free, but filtered, wireless internet.


The Wired article focuses on the need for more data to be collected before such important decisions get made. However, the odds of the large ISPs and telecoms having a sudden revelation and publishing their data seem extremely slim, and although the FCC may compel them to do so, that process would take months or years. The stimulus money, in some form, should be put to work sooner rather than later.

The time for educated best-guesses is upon us, and for my two cents, it seems like a no-brainer that federal funds would do a lot of good right now to expand broadband access to rural areas and underprivileged neighborhoods, though the time for building fat fiber optic pipes to each home may still be a bit premature. Public, municipal Wi-Fi services also appear to be an obvious (and relatively low-cost) investment in a 21st-century infrastructure. Finally, cybersecurity has been grossly neglected as a national priority since 9/11, and it would be a travesty for whatever stimulus plan that emerges not to include major provisions towards securing cyberspace.

All of that said, Wired raises some of the best questions about internet policy that you're likely to find. While I don't consider them necessarily prerequisite to creating a stimulus plan, they do indicate just where this field is going, and what internet policy issues will be most prominent on the agenda over the next few years...

Should Congress attach net neutrality rules to any federal funds?

Should governments subsidize companies like AT&T even more? Compel cities to lay down and rent out fiber to the home?

How much pipe is already laid? Who owns the pipe now, and who should own the pipe in the future?

Should broadband companies be regulated like utilities or be subject to common carrier rules like airlines are? How much competition is there already?

What happened to all the promises that the nation's phone companies made about cheap DSL? What's been the effect of freeing the phone companies from having to lease their lines at wholesale prices, besides the closure of thousands of small ISPs? Where's the congestion? What pipes are not used and why not?
  

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