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Boucher Says Deploying Wider Broadband Is an "Overriding Goal" as New Chairman

The billions of dollars in broadband grants in the economic stimulus package should be targeted to areas that need it most, and with access requirements that do not discourage broadband providers from applying for the grants.

Those encouraging words for cable operators came from new House Communications, Technology & Internet Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher.

In an interview for C-SPAN's Communicators, Boucher said that deploying broadband "more comprehensively" will be his "overriding goal" as chairman of the committee.

The Virginia Democrat conceded that language in the bill that conditions the $6.5 billion in broadband grants on nondiscriminatory treatment of content providers is an "undefined term" that the grant-making agencies-NTIA, USDA, with help from the FCC-must define. He also suggested his committee would keep a close eye on the process to insure that "as that definition is given substance, that it does not impose obligations on the broadband providers that would lead them not to apply for these grants.... We want them to be a part of this process," he said. "That is a balance we have to strike and I think we can."

In other encouraging words for cable and phone nets, Boucher, speaking about nondiscrimination in the broader context of network neutrality, suggested that was an old debate that needed to be superseded by conversations between networks and content providers.

Boucher said he still opposes a two-lane last mile, divided between those who could afford faster speeds and the rest relegated to the slower lane, but he also said that everyone also concedes operators need to be able to manage their networks.

"But rather than engage in this classic debate, shall we permit that or prohibit that, I think we need to be more forward looking," he said, pointing out he has encouraged content providers and networks to seek some common ground.

Comcast and Bittorrent, for example, began working together on management solutions regarding peer-to-peer traffic management, albeit after Bittorrent had gotten the FCC on its side.

"I think with conversation and more clarity brought to what the core concerns of each side would be, there is an opportunity to achieve a more general understanding of what is an effective network management practice and what kind of assurances can be given to the content originators that they can reach their customers in an appropriate way. Those conversations are beginning to take place," he said, adding that "I intend to be involved in them and hopefully we can achieve some form of agreement that can avoid the necessity of having to reengage in the old debate about network neutrality."

Boucher said he was confident that the broadband grant money in the stimulus package would help the rural, un-served areas that need it most, areas like his own rural Virginia district. "We have had great success in accessing the limited government funds that have traditionally been available in order to deploy broadband," he said.

"I have no doubt with the provision of substantial new resources, and with the programs in place already doing a good job with very limited funding, that we can do much more to fill the gap."

Cable operators are concerned that too much of the money will go to "underserved" rather than "un-served" areas, opening up the possibility of the government backing cable competitors in areas where broadband is already available, just not at a sufficiently low price or high speed to satisfy the agencies handing out the money.

Boucher seemed to agree, saying the funds should be "surgically targetted to the areas where the need is the greatest."