Broadband stimulus meeting short on answers

The kick-off public meeting to determine how two U.S. government agencies should spend about US$7 billion to improve broadband deployment across the nation produced more questions than answers.

A crowd of several hundred people attended the meeting in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, and most who got to speak asked questions rather than giving advice about how the new broadband deployment programs should work. In return, officials with agencies overseeing the programs, when asked how the programs would be structured, answered "we're not sure yet," or "we're seeking your input."

Despite the lack of details, government officials said the broadband grants would be an important step toward helping all U.S. residents connect to the technology and economic opportunities of the 21st century.

"We have been asking for years: Where's the policy for broadband?" said acting U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Copps. "Where's the action? Where's the beef? Too few consumers and small businesses in this country have the high-speed broadband they need if they're going to succeed."

The broadband deployment programs, part of a $787 billion economic stimulus package approved by Congress in mid-February, are designed to bring broadband service to unserved and "underserved" areas of the country. But officials with the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Rural Utilities Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told the crowd they just beginning to work on details of much of the program, including a definition for "underserved".

But the NTIA will work fast to define the program and get grants out, said Bernadette McGuire-Rivera, associate administrator at the agency. The NTIA, which was allocated $4.7 billion for broadband programs in the economic stimulus bill, plans to give out three rounds of grants, with the first round coming between April and June, she said. The NTIA is required to allocate all the money by September 2010.

The RUS, with about $2.5 billion to allocate, will also have three rounds of grants and possibly loans, with a funding notice coming out within 60 to 90 days, added David Villano, assistant administrator for telecommunications programs at USDA's rural development program.

Still, the agencies need to hammer out the details of the funding programs, and along with the FCC, will hold a series of public meetings this month to gather comments. Most of the meetings will be in Washington, but one will be in Las Vegas March 17 and one will be in Flagstaff, Arizona, March 18.

One audience member at Tuesday's meeting asked if groups could work together to develop funding proposals and if groups would be given priority over single groups or companies. The answer: It depends on the groups' proposals. If the proposals are good, they will be considered.

Question: Will broadband grants fund long-haul and middle-mile networks? Answer: That's probably a good idea.

Question: Will the "buy American" provisions required by Congress for parts of the stimulus package apply to broadband equipment? Answer: We''re not sure yet, we're checking on that.

Question: Will urban and suburban projects get funded, along with rural? Mark Seifert, senior advisor at NTIA offered a more definitive answer: "We're looking for the best you have to offer. By opening the door wide ... the cream will rise to the top, I believe."

Question: Will the FCC open up new wireless spectrum for broadband? Answer: The FCC is looking into that.

Question: Will the agencies allow states to match federal money in-kind contributions such as waivers of fees or rights of way, instead of money? Answer: We're looking at how to do that and welcome your suggestions.

Question: Will the agencies measure the effectiveness of the grants and loans? Answer: Yes, we plan to do that. But Seifert also noted Congress told the agencies to give special attention to innovative broadband programs. "How do you measure innovation?" he said.

One audience member, saying she was working with rural telecom carriers, said many of them were confused about whether they should apply for grants or whether they would be passed over in favor of larger carriers. "This is not about who gets there first," she said. "This is not about [carriers] dusting off their old equipment that has not been used to help rural areas."

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