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When they say shovel ready, they mean real shovels

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Notes from the Silicon Valley Telecom Council’s Policy Luncheon

The prevailing view amongst the private sector people who have been talking to contacts with the Obama team is that the lion’s share of the broadband money will go to incumbent carriers. “Jobs are created through the existing structures,” was how Mike Masnick put it, quoting a highly placed source in the administration.

Yesterday’s Silicon Valley Telecom Council policy luncheon in Santa Clara was sponsored by AT&T, but big carriers by no means dominated the panel. Speakers represented a wide variety of sectors and areas of expertise, from both inside and outside the Beltway:

With $7.2 billion specifically earmarked for broadband projects, the stimulus package is the largest U.S. government disbursement for telecom purposes ever. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the panelists were 100% in agreement: the priority is job creation, not broadband build out, and incumbent carriers can create — or protect — more jobs more quickly than start up companies or community-based projects.

The audacious hope is that once the dust settles from the stimulus extravaganza, a genuine broadband and telecommunications policy, with money attached, will make its way through the administration and congress. That program, should it ever come to pass, would address how to upgrade the U.S. national broadband infrastructure and extend it to unserved areas. The stimulus package, though, is about something else.

There’s a lot of detail that is still uncertain, not least who will be running the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Rural Utilities Service, the two agencies that will be ladling out the grants. But the consensus yesterday was clear: whoever is appointed will be answering directly to John Maynard Keynes.

It’s not doing the great man justice to focus on a couple of his quips, but he put the awful truth very succinctly. If you hire hire a bunch of people to dig a ditch, you’ve stimulated the economy. If you hire more people to fill it back in, you’ve doubled the stimulus. It doesn’t matter that nothing of value was created in the process. What is most important is that people are receiving pay packets and spending the money.

The bottom line is that the Obama administration would rather fund a project that puts a thousand people to work installing ten miles of fiber, than pay ten people to lay a thousand miles.

Of course, a thousand miles of fiber will support many thousands of jobs in the long run. But, according to yesterday’s private sector expert view, the administration will be thinking about the here and now when it hands out the cash. The first, and maybe only, question for applicants will be “how many people will you hire today with this money?”

Short term thinking perhaps, but as Professor Keynes put it, “this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run, we are all dead.”