The clock began ticking this week on the second of two application periods for broadband stimulus funding.
The good news is that the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) -- part of the Commerce Department -- at least appears eager to give out money. NTIA administrator Lawrence Strickling is quoted in this Government Technology piece saying that the department is looking for public/private partnerships, that the application process won't be onerous and that a common-sense approach will be used.
The bad news: That isn't how things have happened to this point. NPR.com reports that only "a fraction" of the $7.2 billion for broadband in the stimulus package has been allocated. The story describes a landscape in which incumbent carriers stand in the way of projects, citing examples in Philadelphia and Maine.
USA Today takes a look at the situation, and agrees that incumbents are making their presence felt:
For example, Comcast, Charter Communications and AT&T questioned an application for $13.5 million to provide broadband services in Columbia County, Ga. And Time Warner Cable said it offers broadband to more than half of the homes in an area of southwestern Ohio and northern West Virginia to be covered by a $12.6 million application to build a 710-mile fiber-optic ring.
Yet broadband proponents ask whether the incumbents' claim to serve all or part of an area for which an application is being made means anything to the population the stimulus is designed to at least partly target: the poor. If, for instance, Time Warner Cable doesn't serve almost half of the Ohio and West Virginia homes cited in the example by now, is there any reason to believe that it will in the future?
Another reason why only about 7 percent of the money has been assigned to specific projects, according to the story, is that the two agencies acting on applications-the Agriculture Department's Rural Utilities Service is the other-have been overwhelmed with demand. The law says that the monies, which so far have gone overwhelmingly to wired projects, must all be given out by the end of September. It figures to be a busy seven months.
In a perfect world, the two agencies would have time to work out the kinks on a new initiative, especially one this big. The world isn't perfect, however. These agencies must work through issues surrounding intimidation by the big players and the nuts and bolts of quickly wading through applications -- and they must do so on the fly.