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Government Seeks Major Input on Broadband Build-Out

By: John Eggerton, Broadcasting & Cable

By design, there were a lot more questions than answers at the first meeting of the broadband triumvirate--that would be the heads, or acting heads, of the three government agencies charged with overseeing the broadband deployment portion of the economic stimulus package.

On the answer side, the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, which hosted the full-house conference at the Commerce Department in Washington, laid out the schedule for a series of future meetings, all with the idea of soliciting public input on how to hand out the $7.2 billion in broadband stimulus grants, loans, and loan guarantees for getting broadband to underserved and un-served areas.

The next meeting will be in only a few days--March 16--also at NTIA, where the room was packed and people turned away Tuesday as potential grant applicants looked for guidance on what they would need to get a piece of the pie.

The March 16 meeting, where more input will be sought, will be followed by meetings March 17 in Las Vegas, March 18 in Flagstaff, Ariz.; and meetings back at NTIA on March 19, 23, and 24.

At Tuesday's meeting, Mark Seifert, NTIA senior advisor, who is heading up its portion of the program (NTIA has $4.7 billion to give out), stressed that the $7.2 billion was just a down payment on the broadband future, a point echoed by acting Commerce Chief of Staff Rick Wade, who said that sum would not be enough to complete the job, a point echoed by Seifert, who pointed out that divided among 50 states, Puerto Rico, and D.C., it wasn't that much money (by law, each state must get at least one grant).

But Tuesday's meeting was all about getting started. In fact, Bernadette McGuire-Rivera, who is handling the administrative end of NTIA's role, while Seifert heads up policy, said that applicants should start the process the minute they left the room Tuesday, although many were left with some unanswered questions.

All the government representatives repeatedly told their audience that they were looking for help from them and the public on how to administer the money and define to whom and where it should go, and that that would be a collaborative process.

McGuire-Rivera said that the plan was for the grants and loans to be handed out in three rounds: April-June; October-December; and April-June 2010. The money all has to be awarded by Sept. 30, 2010. Just about everyone is eligible to apply for the grants, including states and political subdivisions, Native American tribes, nonprofit foundations and corporations and even broadband service providers and network operators, although the last two only with a showing that it is in the public interest.

The government is encouraging applicants to think holistically about their plans, putting a premium on ones that are "Expandable" and future-thinking" said Seifert, and that take into account other parts of the stimulus package including health care and energy broadband applications.

The money can't be spent on projects that could have been completed without the government's financial help.

Among the still-unanswered questions are how "underserved" will be defined. Scott Deutchman, adviser to Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps, said that decision had yet to be made, but pointed out the FCC's role in the broadband grant/loan program was as a consultant to NTIA and the Agriculture Department, which has more than $2 billion to hand out as part of a rural-targeted grant/loan program.

Seifert added that that was another one of the things they were seeking public comment on. While the NTIA is charged by the stimulus bill with reaching "un-served" and "underserved" communities, the Agriculture Department's Rural Utilities Service money is targeted to "rural" areas, but that they are looking for a way to harmonize those definitions so that they can take a "coherent approach."

Wade said the broadband stimulus program had five main goals: 1) begin to close the broadband gap; 2) stimulate investment (companies who take money must match it with their own; 3) create jobs; 4) get high speed Internet to "anchor institutions" like schools and libraries; and 5) encourage the demand for broadband.

He said that then-Senator Barack Obama called on everyone to reshape the economy for the digital age. Wade renewed that call, saying the spirit of collaboration was the key and would guide the program. He also said the "targeted, timely and temporary" program must relate to other stimulus goals like health, transportation and energy. One audience member, from the Communications Workers of America, said she wanted to make sure that temporary didn't apply to the job creation portion of that list of goals, saying they needed good, permanent jobs.

While the audience members expressed some concerns, cooperation, collegiality and positive thinking were the watchwords of the day Tuesday, a point not missed by observers.

"We are greatly encouraged by the spirit of cooperation, dedication to public input and commitment to a data-driven process," said said Derek Turner, research director for Free Press, of the first meeting. "These agencies are asking the right questions -- and the public will see the biggest bang for the buck once they determine the best path for delivering a high-quality network to the largest number of areas at affordable rates." 

Other unanswered questions are just how $350 million toward a broadband mapping program will be spent; whether money spent before a grant was awarded could still qualify as matching funds; and whether any preference will be given to fiber, copper, or wireless, certainly a decision with major ramifications for ISPs and network operators. Seifert said that there was no priority set in the economic recovery statute, but did point out that there is a premium on speed as well as "the best bang for the buck."


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