The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is now accepting applications for its broadband stimulus program, has crafted rules that benefit private companies at the expense of the public interest, undermining the clear intent of Congress.
“The main reason a broadband stimulus program was needed in the first place was because the existing telecommunications providers massively underinvested in broadband networks,” according to Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR). Mitchell adds, “Now NTIA has written the rules to reward those same companies while at the same time declining to assist communities that would be better off with a publicly owned network.”
When Congress passed the stimulus bill, it chose language that put public sector and non-profit organizations at the head of the line for funds. The NTIA, part of the Obama Administration’s Department of Commerce, was directed to accept applications from private, for-profit companies only if it found that company to be in the public interest. Prioritizing groups that are directly accountable to their communities was seen as a way of ensuring public money was used to directly benefit communities.
NTIA, which released its final regulations on July 2, 2009, decided to give private companies equal standing with public and non-profit entities. It justified the decision by arguing that the U.S. House’s intention was to open applications to as many entities as possible.
This reasoning did not satisfy Mitchell: “Congress emphatically rejected the approach that NTIA took. Congress considered it and pulled it out, only to have NTIA put it back in.”
Mitchell is an expert on community-owned networks and has previously argued that the Lafayette, Louisiana, community-owned network offers the fastest speeds at the most affordable prices in America. He points to hundreds of cities already building their own broadband networks and notes that thousands of cities and towns in the past had to build their own electrical networks or risk being left behind.