The House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday approved a $6 billion broadband plan that would provide grants for those who build out high-speed Internet networks and require the government to maintain a public, online broadband inventory map.

The plan is part of an $825 billion overall economic stimulus package unveiled last week by the House Appropriations Committee.

"Broadband investments are important because they have a tremendous multiplier effect on our economy," Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement.

Under the plan, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) – the agency currently in charge of the DTV transition – would have two years to develop a map of broadband availability throughout the United States and post that data on a publicly available Web site.

NTIA would also be able to hand out grants to those willing to build out broadband service, wireless voice service, and advanced wireless broadband service. For wireless grants, 25 percent of the money will go toward voice services and 75 percent of the funds will be designated for advanced wireless broadband service.

To receive grant money, recipients building out broadband and wireless network must agree to open access standards. They must also adhere to the Federal Communications Commission's broadband policy statement, a set of rules that came under fire during last year's Comcast proceedings.

The NTIA will consult with the FCC on the broadband plan. The FCC will be charged with coming up with definitions for "wireless open access," "open access," and "underserved."

CTIA, a trade group that represents the wireless industry, expressed concern with the open access provisions.

"As you develop policies for recovery, we believe any broadband incentives should be technology neutral in order to encourage wireless providers to deploy next generation mobile and fixed broadband services to our consumers and businesses," CTIA president and chief executive Steve Largent, wrote in a January 15 letter to House and Senate leaders.

D.C.-based interest group Public Knowledge praised the two committees for the inclusion of the open access requirements.

"The forward-looking actions by these committees are the first steps to enacting President Obama's technology platform that will lead to putting Americans back to work, stimulating the economy and improving America's competitiveness," Gigi B. Sohn, president and co-founder of Public Knowledge, said in a statement.

The Computer & Communications Industry Association also championed the plan.

"This stimulus legislation can soon create jobs, and generate more online economic activity and opportunities for more Americans," said Ed Black, president and chief executive of CCIA. "The opportunity to participate in the digital economy via high speed connections to the open, public Internet is fundamental to shared prosperity and democracy."

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Broadband Goals

Barack Obama used his first weekly address as U.S. president to provide more details of his proposed US$825 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan that, among other things, will upgrade classrooms, invest in renewable energy and expand broadband Internet access.

Obama stated his intention to invest in these areas during the presidential debates in September and came back to the issue in a December address that he issued as president-elect, but over the weekend he added concrete goals to the plan.

"It's a plan that will save or create three to four million jobs over the next few years," he said adding that its more than a plan to boost short-term employment. "It's one that will invest in our most important priorities like energy and education; health care and a new infrastructure that are necessary to keep us strong and competitive in the 21st century."

Among the details, Obama said the plan will renovate and modernize 10,000 schools thus creating "state-of-the-art classrooms, libraries, and labs" for 5 million pupils. The plan also hopes to spur students on to careers in science by tripling the number of undergraduates and graduates studying in this area.

Renewable energy is also a focus. The plan will double energy-generating capacity over three years so that 6 million homes are powered by renewable means. He also plans to modernize the electricity grid and install 40 million "smart meters" in American homes.

The plan also aims to accelerate adoption of health IT systems.

"To lower health care cost, cut medical errors, and improve care, we'll computerize the nation's health record in five years, saving billions of dollars in health care costs and countless lives," he said.

But on one aspect of the recovery plan -- expanding broadband access -- he offered no concrete goals and a supporting document issued by the White House doesn't mention the word "broadband" once..

The broadband expansion is part of the infrastructure portion of the plan that will also invest in the road network, mass transit, ports and emergency communications system for law enforcement.

"It means expanding broadband access to millions of Americans, so business can compete on a level-playing field, wherever they're located," he said without offering any goals.

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