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Rep. Blackburn Warns Against Broadband Access Conditions

If the broadband grant program becomes a new vehicle for network neutrality, "advocates [of that policy] will soon confront a guitar-toting, persuasive, sharp-tongued group of songwriters ready to storm Washington D.C.," said one Tennessee Congresswoman.

Tennessee Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn said that while she joined her colleagues in "uniformly rejecting" the just-passed economic stimulus package, she said few of those colleagues would argue against the underlying policy goal of expanding broadband to under and un-served areas. The bill included $7.2 billion in grant money for doing just that.

"A comprehensive Federal commitment to broadband expansion is therefore necessary and welcome for the constituents I represent," she said in a speech to a Free State Foundation broadband conference in Washington Thursday.

Blackburn cited a study by Connected Nation that suggested a 7% boost in broadband connectivity could mean a $134 billion economic impact. President Barack Obama earlier in the week reiterated in his speech to Congress that it would also contribute to the 3.5 million new jobs he says will be created by the stimulus package.

"However," she added, "government investment in broadband expansion should not come with strings attached."

She pointed to the access conditions the FCC put on the D block of spectrum in its 700 mHz auction. Those were widely believed to have prevented the auction from meeting its minimum bid. "Unfortunately, I fear the past may serve as prologue while the Government embarks on a mission to connect the nation with broadband Internet access."

As currently constituted, the broadband grants are contingent on build-out deadlines and open access conditions, what Blackburn branded "short-sighted open-access and net-neutrality conditions" though those conditions have yet to be defined. That will be the work of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration and USDA, which are administering the grants, with help from the FCC and oversight from Congress.

For example, House Communications, Tech & Internet Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (D-VA) has said that those conditions should not be such that they discourage the cable and telco industries from applying for the grants.

But Blackburn isn't assuaged. She fears the Democratic majority in Congress and a new FCC could move aggressively on network neutrality, to the detriment of her songwriter constituents.

"The organized music community in Nashville, responsible for nearly $7 billion in annual economic impact, is only beginning to hone the Internet's power to deliver digital content to an every-hungry audience." she told her audience. "Protecting lawful Internet delivery of copyright protected intellectual property is therefore critical to the constituents I represent."

She said one of those, Rick Carnes, President of the Songwriter's Guild of America, says that the biggest risk to online music distribution would be from "regulatory and legislative proposals to prohibit or limit responsible ISPs from managing their networks."

Blackburn said it was "imperative" that Congress and the FCC "resist implementing policies that deny ISPs the ability to responsibly manage their networks."