Broadband Stimulus Awards: Lots of Questions, Lots of Contenders, Little Time

Carl Weinschenk

The telecommunications industry is weighing in on the broadband element of the stimulus, and its attitude was not hard to predict.


The telcos, as reported in this Reuters piece, are asking that the awarding of the stimulus money not be larded up with anything so silly as speed requirements. According to the piece, industry groups Comptel and The Wireless Communications Association "urged regulators not to mandate a super-faster Internet speed as a criterion for winning money."

The rationale is that setting too high a bar may render projects unprofitable. In other words, the industry gladly will take the money, but they don't want to actually be held to any standard. Others quoted in the story make the painfully obvious point that it is precisely this kind of market-driven approach that landed the United States behind scores of other nations in the quality of its broadband network.

The point is that those charged with setting and enforcing the ground rules will have their hands full with this and other types of nonsense. The early signs are that the government is being savvy. , whose company was represented at one of several informational meetings the feds are running. The best news is that matching elements of the grants and the ability to use parts of the stimulus funds as loan guarantees to secure even more funding may make the final total greater than the $7.2 billion figure being thrown around to date. Sharer said that the government seems be open minded and to not be taking a paternalistic attitude. Still, this is a mammoth undertaking and there will be no shortage of self-serving advice and bad suggestions.


A lot of the basics are not yet in place. For instance, the government in some cases may have to decide between "shovel-ready" projects-those that are ready to go and will provide jobs more quickly -- and those that conform more closely to the administration's ideology. Of course, these goals often will not be in conflict. In some cases, however, they will be. The dangers are exacerbated by the fact--that dealing with cutting edge, quickly evolving technology such as telecommunications is not the government's strong suit. While Sharer's position that the feds are being open-minded-a thought being echoed elsewhere-is a good sign, there still is a large possibility for missteps.

Anyone who thinks this is going to be easy should read this piece in BroadbandCensus.
The subject is a roundtable sponsored by the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Department of Agricultures' Rural Utilities Service (RUS) on the definition of broadband. The writer offers little commentary but provides, in staccato fashion, the views of eight people who spoke at the meeting. The definitions go from the definitive to the fuzzy. Mark Lloyd, the vice president of strategic initiatives at the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said that "definitions should focus on hard speeds." However, Piggah Communication Consulting principal Stagg Newman backed a definition that seemed much more dependent on a series of variables. The takeaway is that if folks can't agree on something as fundamental as this, they may not agree on much of anything.

A taste of what is to come-or, more precisely, what already is happening-can be found in this DSL Reports piece that discusses just a few of the companies angling for funds. Cable operators suggest that they could push Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification 3.0 (DOCSIS 3.0) into more rural areas, IBM is pushing broadband over powerline (BPL), Qwest says that it can provide advanced digital subscriber line (DSL) to 95 percent of its customers for $1 billion, and two companies -- AlphaStar International and Computers & Tele-Comm-say they can combine satellite and WiMax to cover the lion's share of the country. The piece links to a Telecompetitor story on the latter initiative.

The bottom line is that the government has two jobs: Decide the conceptual guidelines around the stimulus and pick the best projects that fall within those rules. There will be no shortage of options on both counts.

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