Economic Stimulus package and broadband

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by Ann Treacy • I’ve put it off long enough – I have to tackle the House Stimulus package in regards to broadband. The super quick take (borrowed from PC World) – “A U.S. House of Representatives committee has recommended the U.S. government give out US$6 billion in grants for wireless and broadband roll-out in a $825 billion economic stimulus package to be considered in Congress.” There are also some pockets where broadband could fit in – such as $20 billion for health IT programs.

Blandin on Broadband offers information on broadband use, access, and trends especially in rural Minnesota. Sponsored by the Blandin Foundation and their Broadband Initiative.

So some of the big questions have been – what are the details and is it enough (or too much)? I guess the biggest question is – how can we get some of that? The best answer I have for local folks is to contact the Ultra High-Speed Task Force – not because I think they will be making decisions but because they are the ones in Minnesota asking for ideas right now.

So what are the details?

Here are details I’ve garnered from different places:

* The overall focus is projects that will have an immediate economic impact, with a goal of using at least 50% of the funding for projects that can be initiated in 120 days.

* The broadband infrastructure funding is for “open-access” networks.

* The USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) would get $2.825 in rural Broadband
Infrastructure Recovery Funding. They are looking for under-served areas, they are looking for repeat customers (folks who have worked with the RUS before), and they want a quick start date.

* NTIA would get $2.825 billion for the Wireless and Broadband Deployment Grant Programs to subsidize the development of broadband and wireless services in un-served and underserved areas. About half to go to voice service and broadband (mobile broadband I think); half would go to fixed wireless. They want to have at last one project per state, need matching funds and again call for open access networks.

* NTIA will get $350 million for broadband mapping.

So is it enough?

I know this part gets longer than I intended – but think of it as the Cliff Notes version of what the scuttlebutt is.

One of my favorite reports comes from the Pew Internet & American Life folks. They look at the likelihood of the proposed stimulus package increasing broadband use (both getting more subscribers and getting subscribers to use higher speeds). They take a look at the barriers to broadband as defined by survey they did with households in December 2007 (chart below) and they conclude, “So, if more and faster broadband is provided, will people come? The analysis here suggests that the answer is “yes,” but that it may take longer than some advocates anticipate.”

According to the NY Times, the transportation folks think it’s not nearly enough (money for transportation) and the focus on quick projects will not lead the overhaul they need to meet demands of traditional infrastructure. “…the plan does not begin to provide the kind of money that civil engineers believe is needed to bring the nation’s aging bridges and water systems and roads and transit systems to a state of good repair.”

The same article barely mentions broadband – but it seems as if maybe the traditional folks and broadband folks should be working together on a broadband superhighway such as the one described by the New American Foundation: “The 21st Century Broadband Superhighway initiative would fund and mandate the installation of high-capacity, dark fiber bundles along all federally-subsidized and direct federal highway projects, thus creating over time a fully interconnected, public access fiber infrastructure to bring high-speed connectivity to every community served by these highways.”

The Daily Yonder did a nice job of pulling out all of the places in the proposal where rural areas could get funding. This is all they say about broadband: “The House/Obama plan proposes spending $6 billion to extend broadband internet service to underserved areas. (There is no description about how this would be done.)”

Geoff Daily introduces the idea of a Rural Fiber Fund as an alternative to the stimulus package approach. The RFF would focuses on $5 billion of government guarantees and $1 billion in matching funds. The RFF would have quicker turnaround than the current proposal. It would focus obviously on fiber – ensuring that we’re building cyber-roads to last for a while, not simply to meet today’s needs/demands. It also focuses on reaching communities with lower household densities. Read his intro to the Rural Fiber Fund, then the advantages.

Fierce Wireless calls this a “coup for wireless broadband”: “Interestingly, the way most of these grants and loans are set up may become a coup for wireless providers when it comes to providing broadband service to those communities with limited options. In order to qualify for the 75 percent of the money going to underserved areas, a wired broadband provider has to deploy a service offering 45 Mbps on the downlink, while a wireless broadband operator must provide 3 Mbps on the downlink. Rob Atkins, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), speaking at a broadband stimulus form late last week, said wired broadband providers such as AT&T and Qwest aren’t set up at this point to deliver broadband connections at 45 Mbps.”

Another writer at Fierce Wireless had a good observation (based on comments from Blair Levin at the State of the Net Conference last week): “The $6 billion in the economic stimulus package is a down payment for national broadband, not the cure-all.”

Internet News outlined a likely sore point to the proposal: “Should attach conditions, such as minimum connection speeds and open network requirements, to the money it would disperse to ISPs to build broadband networks in underserved or un-served areas?” Or should the government be stepping in to tell broadband providers how to do their work.

Telephony Online asks a good question (and I seriously paraphrase), how can we postpone the DTV transition and accelerate the call to broadband providers when a prominent tool for providing broadband (white spaces) will only open up once we’ve moved to DTV?

Now that you’ve read the pros and cons you can decide whether or not you want to sign Speed Matter’s petition on to tell congress to be sure to keep broadband in the stimulus package.

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