Feds Give Broadband Stim Funds a Speed Boost

Two federal agencies are charged with disbursing broadband expansion stimulus money, but critics say they’ve been stuck at dial-up speed since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was passed by Congress earlier this year. So on Tuesday the agencies announced they would streamline the approval process and try to get funding to worthy projects in December.

“This will get the funds out the door faster to stimulate the economy and create jobs,” said Jonathan Adelstein with the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS). “It gives applicants and communities a greater opportunity to come together to form networks and find more creative ways to connect to the global economy through broadband. We are listening to applicants, reviewing applications received, and all indications suggest a need to revisit the application process.”

The RUS, along with the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), received more than 2,200 requests totaling US$28 billion for the first round of broadband funds. Unfortunately, that was about seven times the stimulus money available.The agencies are expediting review of those projects and should announce $4 billion in awards in December, Adelstein said.

There were two more funding rounds scheduled, but Adelstein now says those will be combined into a single remaining round. The agencies will also ask for more suggestions from the public on how to simplify the entire process.

Fast-Tracking High-Speed jobs?

Clearwire, the Kirkland, Wash.-based telecommunications firm currently building out a national next-generation wireless high-speed network, has applied for what the company terms a “modest” amount of broadband stimulus funding. “We commend the Obama administration’s effort to further streamline and expedite the process of awarding the grants,” Clearwire spokesperson Susan Johnston told the E-Commerce Times. “The broadband funding has the potential to have a positive impact on job creation and the economy overall.”

An administration that is now dealing with 10 percent unemployment — despite a resurgent Dow and other slowly rising economic indicators — may be applying pressure for more immediate job creation. Yet even with the first billions going out in December, how soon could people be hired for those jobs and ground broken for the broadband projects?

“In a sense, they (the agencies) were almost up against an impossible timeframe,” said Derek Turner, research director for Free Press, an advocacy group with universal broadband as one of its policy goals. “Here we are in the depth of winter, and construction doesn’t really happen now. We’re talking billions of dollars, and you don’t want to throw money at just anyone with a half-decent idea. You want to make sure you’re funding the right kinds of projects that bring the most jobs and the biggest bang for the buck.”

Too Much Public Comment?

The RUS and NTIA made their call for more public comment on the process in a 10-page Request For Information (RFI) document. It notes that commenters will be asked to justify their proposals based on the number of new jobs created, end users connected, community institutions linked to high-speed networks and projections for increases in broadband adoption. In turn, the agencies are looking for more guidance on projects that will create “comprehensive communities” for connecting medical and educational facilities to users, and whether the definition of a “remote area” may need to be changed. Grant eligibility is impacted by what kinds of services projects will bring to unserved/underserved areas.

“They’re trying to respond to criticism,” Turner said. “The most vocal criticism revolved around what it means to be a remote area, for purposes of getting money from RUS. They may revise some of the rules to make it easy to get community anchor institutions, like libraries, schools and hospitals, included. There was a lot of criticism about how those groups were shut out” of early funding proposals.

Streamlining the funding rounds is a good idea, Turner said, but he is concerned that the agencies might end up putting the process in reverse. “We don’t want them reinventing the wheel, particularly with the issue of non-discrimination or net neutrality requirements. We think that’s a settled issue,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “If the goal here is to get the money out the door as fast as possible, they don’t need to be revisiting issues settled long ago.”

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