Bypassing own task force, Pawlenty to hand broadband stimulus funds to telecoms

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As Minnesota develops a plan to increase high-speed broadband to rural areas, advocates complain that the organization chosen to map the state’s broadband access – and the process Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration used to make the selection – lack sufficient transparency.

Commissioners of the Minnesota Departments of Commerce and Employment and Economic Development have recommended Connected Nation as the state’s vendor for broadband mapping. The commissioners arrived at their decision in July, but without seeking the input of the Ultra High Speed Broadband Task Force, whose members Pawlenty appointed.

“The Governor signed off and [Connected Nation] is off to the races,” wrote task force member Mike O’Connor. “I’m pretty cranky about this process. Nice n’ cozy. Nice n’ closed. Nice bypass of the Task Force. No public input at all as far as I can see,” he said.

The recommendation puts Connected Nation in the running for an upcoming grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, between $1.9 and 3.8 million, to identify and map holes in the state’s broadband network. That money will be followed by $7 billion in further grants that states can use to extend broadband service planning to areas outside the existing network.

Connected Nation is a nonprofit whose ties to the telecommunications industry have prompted protests from broadband-access advocates. As the Wall Street Journal noted in June, the group “is backed by big telecommunications companies like Comcast Corp., Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc. that potentially stand to benefit from how the Obama administration doles out that $7 billion in stimulus money for broadband improvements.”

As the financial paper notes, critics “worry Connected Nation will use the maps to steer stimulus funds toward its big corporate sponsors, at the expense of smaller players or poorly served areas.”

Connected Nation’s board of directors is filled with industry executives and lobbyists from AT&T, Inc.; CTIA – The Wireless Association; the United States Telecom Association; the National Cable & Telecommunications Association; the Telecommunications Industry Association; Verizon Communications; and the Comcast Corporation. Several more members hail from nonprofits that have benefited financially from AT&T and Verizon.

The state acknowledges and actively supports the telecoms in its decision to go with Connected Nation. In a letter to Pawlenty (pdf), the commissioners said it was the telecoms that influenced their decision. “[The] primary reason that we are recommending Connected Nation is that in conversations with and letters from the broadband provider community (including the Minnesota Telecom Association, the Minnesota Cable Communications Association, Qwest and Comcast), they have noted their satisfaction with the work Connected Nation has done. Most important, the providers have confidence in Connected Nation’s ability to protect their sensitive, nonpublic infrastructure information.”

Pawlenty’s commissioners said the telecoms didn’t trust the other applicant, the University of Minnesota, in terms of confidentiality agreements. When Connected Nation partners with states to work with the large broadband providers, the biggest issue – and one Minnesota officials acknowledge – is that the providers want as much information as possible kept confidential. And if that information isn’t kept confidential, the providers will refuse to cooperate.

“While we understand the importance of the University of Minnesota,” the commissioners wrote, “there is some uncertainty regarding their proposal. First, the University indicates that it has entered into confidentiality agreements on other projects. However, in speaking to the provider community, it is unclear whether they would be able to reach agreement with the University on nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) in order to turn their infrastructure data over to the University.”

The decision has broadband task force member O’Connor worried. “Looks like there was lots of opportunity for providers to provide input about their confidentiality needs, not too much input about what consumers need,” he wrote. “Look forward to more sub-par optimistic maps, and impossible to use/verify data…”

He’s been cynical about Connected Nation throughout the process. On his Urban Broadband Users of Minnesota blog, a place he chronicles the inner workings of the task force and broadband implementation, O’Connor wrote that Connected Nation is “complicated.”

“They, and their corporate backers, are playing a complex game to a) garner a big piece of stimulus mapping money and b) shape the dialog about broadband availability and rollout. They’re darn slick,” he said. “My posture is to watch them carefully and be very thorough when evaluating their results. I think that there are real issues of transparency, mapping-methods and control.”

He’s not the only broadband expert in Minnesota who takes issue with Connected Nation. Peter Fleck of the Digital Inclusion Fund Committee with the City of Minneapolis spoke before the task force last week.

“My understanding is that we have allowed the companies that have not provided the needed broadband coverage in our state to steer the broadband mapping process itself because of a stated need for confidentiality. That need is questionable,” said Fleck.

“And it puts the state in a position where if the maps show there is no problem with broadband coverage, then we won’t need legislation, regulation, or any other policies and it creates the risk that the telecom industry can continue to provide inadequate coverage to underserved areas – usually areas of low-density and low-income. And because of the inadequacy of these maps, eventually we will have to undertake broadband mapping again at taxpayer expense. To me, this is an irresponsible use of public money.”

Gov. Tim Pawlenty

Gov. Tim Pawlenty

Christopher Mitchell of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an organization working to encourage community-owned broadband networks, was much more blunt. “Perhaps we could next ask the Minnesota Vikings to create a nonprofit to study whether a new football stadium is a good idea or not,” he wrote.

Pawlenty’s spokesman, Brian McClung, said the governor’s office has directed the Commerce Department to handle the state’s recommendation to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the federal agency implementing the stimulus funds.

Patrick Sexton, legislative affairs director for the Department of Commerce, said the state has submitted Connected Nation’s name and that the stimulus awards will be announced shortly. “Minnesota has formally recommended to the NTIA that Connected Nation do broadband mapping here,” he said. “No stimulus funds have been used because the NTIA has not actually awarded any applicants a contract. That should occur in the next few weeks.”

He said that the decision not to consult the task force was based on a difference of missions.

“The task force was initiated to develop a plan to achieve ultra high-speed broadband, which they are hard at work on completing,” he said. “The question of who would do the mapping is a separate question and not part of the mission so I’m not sure why anyone would be upset.”

Brian Mefford, CEO of Connected Nation, responded to critics concerns on the group’s website. He says the company will begin third-party verification of the datasets that the telecoms demand stay private. “In order to provide even more assurance of our maps’ accuracy, Connected Nation will soon be announcing a process for third-party validation of our mapping efforts,” he said.