Last updated: January 8, 2009 - 1:40pm
President-elect Barack Obama's call to bring high-speed Internet to all Americans has set off a scramble among service providers for a piece of the action. Building out networks to rural and underserved urban areas -- with possible help from the economic stimulus plan being crafted by Congress -- could create hundreds of thousands of jobs and enrich telecom, wireless and cable companies whose businesses have suffered as households tighten spending. Within the well-funded world of telecom lobbying, even fierce opponents are in rare agreement that Obama's plans to expand networks would boost the economy with jobs digging trenches for fiber lines and designing complex networks. But the interest groups differ on how that ambition should be executed, and that has sparked a race that one lobbyist calls a "telecom takefest."
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, said there are no specific plans for broadband yet in an economic stimulus package that lawmakers want to vote on in January and have ready for Obama soon after he is sworn in as president. But Chairman Markey said any incentive should be distributed with conditions that prevent network operators from stalling or blocking traffic, a contentious issue known as net neutrality that the network firms argue would drive up costs as Web traffic increases.
For the Telecommunications Industry Association, tax breaks are a priority.
Corning, a supplier of ultra-fast fiber-optic technology, wants companies to offer higher speed standards to qualify for financial help.
Free Press, a public interest group, has urged lawmakers and Obama's tech advisers to give oversight of the plan to an agency familiar with technology policy such as the Federal Communications Commission or the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is the White House's telecom office. The group insists the service should be affordable and seeks subsidies for low-income families with school-age children so they can buy laptop computers and deduct the cost of home Internet access.
The Communications Workers of America wants Congress to approve tax breaks that would allow network operators to expense, through tax deductions, a larger portion of their broadband deployment costs right away, which the union says would encourage operators to build networks more quickly.
Wireless trade group CTIA met with Obama's tech advisers this month to suggest that wireless technology should be the focus for broadband expansion because people are increasingly using Internet data services over their cellphones and wireless laptops.
Telecom carriers are among a chorus of companies that have called for repurposing a fund that uses monthly charges from telephone bills to pay for expanding basic phone service in rural and underserved urban areas. The fund, they say, should be channeled to build broadband networks instead of land lines.
But Public Knowledge, a public interest group, cautioned that arguing over the $7 billion fund could hold up progress.
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