The Broadband Element of the Stimulus: Now Comes the Hard Part


The $790 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 has been passed. A variety of overseers will award $7.2 billion in broadband grants and all will be fine. The economy will recover and everybody will be happy, right?


One small detail remains: The money has to be allocated. Actually, the complexity and potential conflict of doling out all that money during these tough times may make passing the original bill seem like child's play.


The collective intelligence of the telecommunications and IT industries is starting to assess the challenge. One big issue is what level of information the government will require before it begins awarding the funds. There was a lot of talk when the bill was being debated about "shovel-ready" projects that can be started relatively quickly. It remains to be seen just quick that is. And how much spade work must be done before the real shovels are brought out.


CNET News reports that $350 million will go toward creation of a detailed map showing which areas of the nation have broadband and which don't. That mapping already has been done in eight states. The question is whether waiting until the remaining states are mapped-a task that could take the balance of the year-will simply make the stimulus too late to do its intended job. The other side of the coin is that not doing the mapping could lead to wasteful spending.


The rationale for a more deliberate approach is strong, if a bit more subtle. This Phoenix Business Journal article makes the case. A spokesperson for Cox Communications says that 96.6 percent of the state has at least one broadband cable option, while Mark Goldstein, president of the International Research Center, said the broadband penetration level is about 91 percent. He said that even that figure -- even though it is more than 5 percentage points lower than the Cox figure which, presumably, only counts its broadband connectivity -- is misleading because most of the population lives in the Phoenix and Tucson areas. That could leave wide but sparsely populated areas unserved. The point is that it is vital to figure out which areas are underserved and which are unserved. Unanimity won't exist on the issue, in Arizona or anywhere else. As quickly as people want to get "shovels in the ground," careful planning clearly is required.


The states want to get in on the act as well. xchange reports that states want to have input. The piece focuses mainly on Massachusetts, which set up the Massachusetts Broadband Initiative last August. The story says the quasi-public entity is aimed at going after opportunities such as the broadband stimulus. The organization, which will partner with providers in the state, concentrates on long-term partnerships.


This is an extremely helpful article at Wi-Fi Planet discussing what is known to this point about the broadband element of the stimulus package. The first important point is that on Tuesday, the National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA), the NTIA's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) and the Federal Communications Commission will hold what the author says is the first of many meetings aimed at helping prospective participants understand the process. The story than outlines the NTIA's Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) and the RUS grants. The last section of the piece offers commentary on various issues related to the broadband portion of the stimulus. Actually, the law looks comparatively fairly straightforward-but an undertaking of this magnitude is fated to be complex, no matter how simple it looks on paper.


The government is promising oversight of the spending as well, but comments attributed to Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, are a bit disconcerting. Lieberman was quoted in BroadbandCensus as saying at a hearing last week that the funds must be better directed than those used for "Iraqi reconstruction projects or in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina." While this is obviously true, using those two examples creates a needlessly political and incendiary context. The problems of rebuilding Iraq and after Katrina were caused by a combination of grievously poor judgment and/or malfeasance by another administration. There was no reason for them to be brought up when discussing the stimulus.The story, which focused on the overall stimulus package, not just the broadband element, said that www.recovery.com has gotten 3,000 hits per second since it launched Feb. 17.

Make no mistake about it: The awarding of the $7.2 billion in stimulus money will be a scrum worthy of an Australian Rules football match. Companies are hungry for work and, in many cases, grabbing a piece of the stimulus could be the key to survival.