Obama okays $7 billion to improve broadband: Is it enough?

  • Washington (DC) - With Obama's signing of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act earlier this week, the new administration appears to be putting its money where its mouth is. Part of this bill contains $7 billion in funding reserved for improving the state of broadband access in the United States -- which has too long been neglected and pushes the U.S. far down the list in terms of global broadband access.

    Although $7 billion is a lot of money, it remains to be seen if it's sufficient to fund what many perceive as a basic rebuilding of the nation's broadband infrastructure, something necessary to connect the under-served and rural areas to the Internet's fast lanes. It's easy to dismiss the importance of this bill in light of broader economic uncertainties, but the fact remains that the infrastructure being established by this funding will have a profound effect on our everyday lives mid-term. And most importantly, it could easily be the most important pre-requisite for boosting global competitiveness by the U.S. economy.

    U.S. President Barack Obama has already won sympathies and respect of many technologically-inclined people in this country, be it for his BlackBerry and the implications it has, the roll-out of YouTube new download feature on his official video channel, or the fact that the White House began blogging. Although this is all nice, we still remember the Top 5 technology promises that helped Obama win the election and become the President. It appears one of them could be checked-off as the President signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on Monday.

    The President said at the Act's signing:

    "Because we know we can't build our economic future on the transportation and information networks of the past, we are remaking the American landscape with the largest new investment in our nation's infrastructure since Eisenhower built an Interstate Highway System in the 1950s."
    The investment should create nearly 400,000 jobs associated with rebuilding roads, bridges, repairing faulty dams and levees and bringing broadband connections to businesses and homes.


    Distribution of wealth

    Of the $7 billion, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration will get $4.7 billion to be distributed via grants aimed at increasing broadband adoption, improving broadband deployment in unserved and under-served areas, bettering access to broadband by public safety agencies. In addition, it will serve to stimulate the economy by creating IT-related jobs. The remaining $2.5 billion will go to the Rural Utilities Service that connects rural Americans to broadband.

    An additional $350 million goes toward the Broadband Data Improvement Act for mapping and community initiatives, with a minimum of $250 million for various programs that stimulate broadband adoption, and at least $200 million to expand public computer center capacity in libraries and community colleges.

    Last but not the least, the FCC is required to submit a report to Congress detailing how a national broadband plan will ensure broadband access for all Americans. Also, everyone can see how this money is being spent at the newly setup site Recovery.gov. It details federal spending state-by-state with more detailed information available over the coming weeks and months, as the funds start to go out.

    Four more tech promises to go

    As history has shown, Obama is no stranger to the issues of technology. These played an important part of his overall political platform. During the election, Obama promised to tackle net neutrality; thoroughly review the existing wireless spectrum use; improve privacy by tightening access to health records, battling spam, phishing and malware; he promised to increase the number of H-1B non-immigrant visas needed to recruit foreign guest workers and eliminate tax breaks to the companies which ship domestic jobs overseas; and he promised to improve broadband penetration.

    The latter bears particularly important symbolism and practical meaning in this country as we lag far behind in terms of broadband penetration and speeds compared to most parts of the world. A recent CWA study put the United States at #15 on a worldwide scale in terms of broadband speed, far behind the leaders Japan, South Korea and Finland some of which are looking at Gigabit broadband access for all by 2012.

    Whereas various organizations have attempted, and failed, to get Congress to come up with an improved telecommunications policy in the past, Obama, from the very onset, insisted on expanding the Universal Service Fund in order to re-build the nation's broadband infrastructure. In this way, the new administration has now secured over $7 billion to rebuild nation's broadband infrastructure.

    Too little money, too late?

    Although it's easy to point out the political side and recognize this move serves as one important fulfillment of the promises made during Obama's election campaign, it should also have real, far-reaching positive consequences on mid- and long-term competitiveness by U.S. workers and our economy's on a global scale. Speedy and universally available access to broadband Internet is an essential prerequisite for the U.S. economy to move forward and put this country back at the top of the technological map of the world.

    Although $7 billion seems like a lot of money to improve the state of the broadband access in this country, it remains to be seen if the amount will even be enough to bring the nation up to date with the rest of the world. The toughest nut to crack, without a doubt, will be bringing broadband access to rural and under-served areas that do not have broadband at all.

    Perhaps the miles and miles of dark fiber laid during the late 1990s and early 2000s (the dot com era) can finally be put to use by this funding.

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