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Republican loses his sanity over broadband

Fri, 03/05/2010 - 9:20am
Brian Santo

Republican lawmakers are attacking the Obama administration’s broadband stimulus program. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) questioned the program’s cost, its effectiveness and its efficiency in a formal statement at a House subcommittee meeting.

There is no question that this is a timed attack. The FCC is due to submit a plan for a National Broadband Plan in less than two weeks.

At a hearing convened by the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet on oversight of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), Barton hung his argument on the potential cost of the program.

In his statement, Barton said: “The FCC says that getting high-speed broadband to 100 million households will cost approximately $350 billion. That’s billion with a ‘b.’ The combined cost of the NTIA’s and the RUS’ programs is $7.2 billion. That’s barely 2 percent of the stated total cost, but it is not pocket change for taxpayers, and I want to make sure that we don’t treat any number of billions of taxpayers’ dollars like it was walking around money.”

Barton apparently got his number from an October headline from Reuters, which quoted an FCC document. Reuters’ headline was of course alarmist – the whole point of a headline is to grab attention (did my headline catch your attention?) – but the Reuters article stated explicitly why the cost range was so broad: “The range indicates the slowest speeds to premium fast speeds.” The chart with the FCC’s estimate is below.

The incremental cost to universal availability...

But Barton ignored the fact that there was a range. Had he acknowledged it, he could easily have noted that the $7.2 billion spent on broadband by the U.S. so far is more than 33 percent of the stated total cost – not a bad investment. But that doesn’t sound nearly as alarming as 2 percent, does it?

Furthermore, after looking at the FCC chart, it’s not entirely clear whether those numbers include only government spending or government spending combined with commercial funding. Might be either. Maybe the numbers are as alarming as Barton suggests, and maybe they’re not. Barton could have asked RUS Administrator (and former FCC commissioner) Jonathan Adelstein, who was sitting right there. But why ask, especially when the point is to be alarming?

Barton professes to be further disturbed. By what? The concept of “overlay.”

“What disturbs me most are the rumors that some of the funds that have been distributed by NTIA and RUS are for projects that overlay existing broadband infrastructure. I’m aware of at least two projects that appear to be overbuilds, and given the relaxing of the rules for the next round of funding from the NTIA, this problem will only get worse. What due diligence are the NTIA and the RUS doing themselves to ensure money is not being spent where facilities already exist?”

These objections might even be valid, but why actually present evidence when you can introduce rumors and innuendo? Actually calling the RUS or NTIA in advance was no doubt too hard for him. OK, maybe I’m being unfair. Perhaps two whistleblowers managed to inform Barton that two projects out of several hundred funded by ARRA were overbuilds just before Barton entered the House chambers. Or perhaps in his zeal to cut costs for taxpayers, Barton got rid of his telephones.

Then Barton insists that stimulus funding does not create jobs. In fact, he claims that jobs are eliminated. Could he be right? Let’s look at the evidence. Whoops, he didn’t cite any. Some trolling through the nation’s newspapers demonstrates that evidence about job creation stemming from stimulus funding does exist, though so far it’s at worst inconclusive.

Barton insists that ARRA should start with areas unserved by broadband, and then provide funding for underserved areas. He said he co-wrote a letter in March to the Commerce and Agriculture Departments with some ideas for how ARRA projects should be prioritized.

“First, we suggested that you prioritize projects in states where broadband mapping is complete. Second, you should prioritize money toward unserved areas. No one should get ‘seconds’ before others get ‘firsts.’ Third, you should prioritize money toward projects that are sustainable without additional government funding. And finally, you should give priority to projects that can increase broadband availability the most for every dollar spent. If these guidelines are followed, as more money is granted, we can avoid the criticisms and the overbuild problems that we are already hearing about.”

This all seems reasonable. But not all of it is. For example, if RUS and NTIA had started by disbursing ARRA money only to states that had their mapping projects done, the original grants wouldn’t have been made at all because the mapping projects lagged the original outlay by months. There would have been a very small pool of potential recipients even by the second round, and the NTIA and RUS would have had no option but to have awarded more “seconds.”

Barton can play partisan politics. Partisanship is nothing new in Washington, nor is the bitterness that often goes with it; it goes back to before the founding of the republic – back before the seat of government actually arrived in D.C.

What does change is the distance in the gap between the two sides. In recent years, we have gone beyond metaphorical chasms; we now have two parties that are occupying different realities. Selective citation of figures and statistics is also a well-worn technique, but that doesn’t mean anyone else has to sit still for it.

The NCTA and ACA and individual communications service providers have been advocating for a smart communications policy with level heads and the most reliable data available. It wouldn’t hurt to not only remind politicians like Barton that reliable data exists – again – but also to redouble efforts to bring it to the attention of the population at large.
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