Thursday, January 22, 2009

Change or Cha-ching?

Change has come to America. Well, sort of. On "K" Street - home to Washington's most powerful corporate lobbyists - it's business as usual.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the scrum of lobbyists gathering around President Obama's economic stimulus package. Hearings started yesterday in the House Appropriations Committee and they're already lining the halls outside chambers.

Without a strong public interest voice at the table, lobbyists could steer billions in taxpayer dollars toward a corporate welfare boondoggle. This lost opportunity would be felt most acutely in our efforts to close America's gaping digital divide.

The Internet Economy

Obama's Kids
Obama has set aside $6 billion for broadband deployment and has been outspoken about the Internet's role in jump starting our "21st century economy," allowing small rural businesses to compete in global markets and giving every child a chance to access fast and open Internet technology.

For Ashea Williams, a special education teacher at Washington D.C.'s Arts and Technology Academy, it's a change that couldn't come soon enough for her young students. "A lot of our students do not have Internet access," she said last week. "So a lot of the activities that we do here at school they cannot expand upon at home. So the learning ends here."

If done right - by building an open and affordable network with plentiful service options -- Obama's economic stimulus plan could close the digital divide for many of Williams' students, and also for those living in rural America.

Business as Usual

But don't tell that to the many lobbyists and "analysts" plying their trade in Washington.

In their ears, "economic stimulus" means an opportunity to cash in on lucrative deals shilling for corporate interests.

One of them, Robert Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, has been busy convincing the Beltway that this taxpayer money should be handed over to broadband incumbents like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon -- with few to no strings attached.

"We have got to focus on what this is all about," he said recently at a forum on Internet and the economic stimulus package. "This is not about broadband reform -- this is about stimulus... Stimulus has to have one goal, and that is to get as much investment in as fast a time as possible."

Change, Not 'Cha-ching'

Get out your DC decoder rings to descramble this message. What Atkinson really means is that change isn't needed for America's Internet - not even at a time when our country has slid to 22nd in the world in high-speed Internet adoption.

In Atkinson's view, we merely need to funnel taxpayer dollars to the same phone and cable companies that got us into this problem. They'll pocket the cash and continue to:
  1. Exert their near complete control over America's broadband market;
  2. Stifle new innovation and market entrants; and
  3. Charge users higher prices for slower speeds than what's available to people in other developed nations.
When Atkinson says: "This is not about broadband reform" he really means it's about business as usual.

And he's not alone. Legions of lobbyists are taking a stand with the phone and cable companies to fight conditions like non-discrimination and open access that would guarantee that this public money actually serves the public good.

Stimulus for Whom?

The stimulus bill as it's drafted sets a different tone. It states that companies receiving broadband grants must allow consumers to access the Internet with no controls placed on their Web traffic or choice of content. Another provision calls for "open access" rules - which guarantee more competition -- to guide this stimulus.

Nowhere does it say that taxpayers should prop up a powerful duopoly that has served us poorly in the past. But this could change if the lobbyists get the ear of Congress and strike these conditions from the bill.

Stimulus is critical and the Internet has an important part to play in spreading economic opportunity. But simply enriching AT&T is not the answer.

We need to preserve these built-in guarantees so that our public money will build a better, more open and affordable system.

But Congress is moving so quickly, and big phone and cable are lobbying so ferociously, that we risk watching this chance turn into yet another corporate handout - one that enriches the phone and cable companies instead of investing in the change that Ashea Williams and her students need.

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