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New Congress pitching bevy of broadband bills

Members of both houses are introducing bills that address the dearth of high-speed Internet access in rural areas, though some are simply reintroductions of last year's failed bills.

WASHINGTON--Members of both houses are introducing bills that address the dearth of high-speed Internet access in rural areas, although some are simply reintroductions of bills that failed in the last Congress.

Members of Congress have been much quicker in introducing bills promoting broadband than the actual broadband providers have been in launching Internet service. That applies at least as far as rural and low-income areas of the United States are concerned, and it is those areas that members of both major parties are targeting in an early round of legislation this year.

The hotly debated issue even has the honor of being the subject of one of the first bills introduced by newly elected Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., although she doesn't serve on the Senate Commerce Committee before which the issue will be debated.

"My plan," Clinton said in introducing her legislation, "will help bring more New Yorkers and more Americans online and into the 21st century economy by promoting entrepreneurship and innovation and by knocking down the most stubborn barriers to economic progress in our state and nation."

Broadband using phone and cable networks is thought to be a huge opportunity for the high-technology industry. Clinton's early interest in the issue underscores how popular the topic has become in political circles.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell, however, recently dismissed concerns about the slow spread of broadband Net access outside wealthier urban and suburban areas, known as the digital divide. He argued that new technologies will always be available first to those who can most afford them. That mentality isn't found as much on Capitol Hill, where every senator and nearly every U.S. representative has rural voters as constituents.

Displaying a focus not just on consumers but on businesses, Clinton said, "We are facing an economic slowdown that could be devastating to places like upstate New York if we do not act now to give them the tools to succeed in the New Economy."

Following are some of the bills introduced recently to further broadband offerings in rural and low-income areas:

• Clinton said her bills would allow communities to use bonds for launching broadband services, issue grants to encourage companies to extend their networks into rural areas, and encourage the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop technologies specifically targeting remote areas. Both the use of bonds and the addition of the NSF are new approaches to this issue. Of the 13 senators sponsoring all or part of her legislation, only one--Olympia Snowe of Maine--is a Republican.

• Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., is focusing on schools, libraries and community centers that are being bypassed by broadband by expanding the amount of facilities benefiting from the corporate tax deduction for donating technology equipment. His bill, introduced last week, notes that companies such as Microsoft, Intel and AOL Time Warner already donate to schools and libraries covered under existing tax credits, a new approach to an existing program. Among the sites targeted by Cleland are historically black colleges and universities, of which there are 10 in Georgia, and Native American institutions, which has helped draw the support of Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.

• Rep. Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo., has reintroduced a bill she saw fall short in the Senate last year that would foster broadband development by providing regulatory relief to all but the largest phone companies. By exempting all but the Baby Bells from FCC regulatory requirements for broadband that can run more than 900 pages long, Cubin hopes small telecom companies will be encouraged to serve their rural customers more quickly. Her bill is backed by House Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., who said upon its introduction last month that small carriers were critical to broadband because "they serve customers' telecommunications needs in high-cost areas of the country where others fear to tread."

These bills follow ones introduced separately by Sens. John Rockefeller, D-W.V., and John Kerry, D-Mass., that would create a tax credit for broadband providers launching in rural and underserved areas.

Senate Commerce Communications subcommittee Chairman Conrad Burns, R-Mont., said last month that he would be introducing a bill that would include tax incentives and regulatory relief as well as the lifting of a cap related to use of the Universal Service Fund, a pool of money generated by payments taken from phone bills and used to support rural phone service. All of these efforts fell short in the last Congress.

The Senate Republican High-Tech Task Force, of which Burns is a member, also said last week that broadband access to rural areas would be one of its top priorities.