Net Neutrality Advocates Push to Add Mandate to Stimulus

Published June 1, 2009

As the government prepares to set rules for doling out $7.2 billion in federal broadband spending, public interest groups are pressing to have providers vying for money abide by network neutrality, under which Internet service providers cannot take into account content or applications when managing traffic.

“The federal government is not a charity for broadband providers. It is an investor,” Ben Scott, policy director for the consumer group Free Press, told a public meeting on the government’s plans. Broadband providers, meanwhile, say imposing net neutrality would slow down the process of bringing access to new areas of the country.

“The clash between groups can reach new levels when government gets involved,” said Jeff Kagan, an independent telecom consultant based in Atlanta, Georgia.

Taxing Everyone for Few
Steve Titch, a telecom policy analyst for the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles, said the federal government is still attempting to define the meanings of “unserved areas” and “underserved areas” where the stimulus money is supposed to increase access.

“The effectiveness of the plan will depend on how those terms are defined,” Titch said. “If stimulus is the focus, they should be focused on getting broadband to those areas in the most inexpensive way. They shouldn’t be using the stimulus funds to experiment with fiber. The areas they are considering [as unserved and underserved] are small and very lightly populated.”

Scott Testa, who teaches marketing at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, says the government shouldn’t even be in the business of providing Internet access.

“That should be left to the private sector,” Testa said. “I don’t think that all people should have to pay for it. That’s like having all of the taxpayers of Alaska paying $100 million for a road that serves only 300 people.”

Strings Attached
Titch said the stimulus funds would probably come with all sorts of strings attached. And those strings, he said, are killing interest in public-private partnerships because private firms don’t want numerous restrictions about the types of content they can provide.

Requiring providers to observe net neutrality and block gambling and other content the government decrees objectionable will cause most companies to walk away from the stimulus money, Titch said.

Strict Rules
Titch notes firms that have attempted to get government loans to provide broadband have instead been pointed to the stimulus funds (which are grants) and have refused to go any further due to the restrictions.

The restrictions have chased away companies that otherwise might have been interested in providing broadband in the target areas, Titch says. He expects the government to experiment in various areas of broadband in return for the stimulus funds.

“It’s a race of money in the long run,” Titch said. “If you’re an investor—as the government would be in those areas where stimulus funds are accepted—then you have some say in the direction of things.”

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.