What about rural?

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by Ann Treacy • I’ve been busy looking at the local broadband scene in Minnesota. I finally got a little time to catch up on the national broadband situation. It’s not looking so good for rural areas.

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

According to BroadbandCensus, the Senate compromise has cut the broadband portion of the stimulus from $9 billion to $7.1 billion and most of it will be distributed through the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration – which means a focus on “advanced services” over a focus on rural areas. (The other organization on the short list to control the money was/is Department of Agriculture.)

I’m getting frustrated with the stimulus package. First – I think everyone has put the brakes on any ongoing projects in hopes of getting a piece of the package. Second – I know Senator Klobuchar said that the bulk of broadband support will come in the second wave of the stimulus plan. But I think a lack of patience is getting the better of us. People are making policy in haste and not for a lot of money. (OK I clearly wouldn’t say no to $7.1 billion, but when you slice it up, it’s not going to be a cure-all. I just hope that hasty policy won’t be the price we pay for quick cash.)

I’ve said before, I think we need a national broadband strategy. I won’t belabor the point – but I felt like we had a direction for the stimulus broadband funds because when President Obama talked about broadband in the economic stimulus bill, I’m pretty sure he said rural. So I thought that the goal was rural areas – but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Two colleagues with Minnesota connections have eloquently made the point that rural is getting lost this time around. (Amalia Deloney in Rural Broadband and the Stimulus Package: Digital Inclusion is Hardly a ‘Cyberbridge to Nowhere’ and Geoff Daily in We Can’t Afford To Short Change Rural America.)

I used to write grants. I found the smartest thing you could do was find the right funder to suit your program. I worked with too many people who tried to go after the wrong money. They changed goals and even missions to suit a funder. We occasionally got the money but it never really worked out in the end. I feel like that’s what’s happening here. People see the opportunity for free money and they’re trying to twist the rules and themselves to make a fit.

Maybe it’s time to step back and consider why Obama mentioned rural by name and how we can best serve rural needs with this opportunity and open doors to policies that will support ongoing improvements in the future.

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