How should the US government spend $7.2B in broadband funds?

At Tuesday's first inter-agency meeting in Washington, DC around the US government's new $7.2 billion broadband stimulus package, the government put out strong calls for public input in the form of both comments and program proposals.

Government interest is particularly big on the question of "how there can be better inter-agency coordination of broadband initiatives in order to develop a report on rural broadband strategy," said Michael Copps, acting chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, one of three federal agencies involved in divvying up the hotly sought after funds among Internet access providers of various shapes, sizes, and persuasions.

Signed into law last month by President Obama, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act allocates $4.7 billion to the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration for giving out grants to spur broadband deployment in "unserved, underserved," and low income communities. The Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) will disburse another $2.5 billion in grant money. In addition, the FCC has been directed to create a "national broadband strategy" over the next year and a "broadband map" by 2011.

"We're calling on all of you to develop proposals for funding," said Rick Wade, senior advisor and acting chief of staff for the NTIA, during the open forum on Tuesday.

The NTIA is also inviting members of the general public to six open forums later this month, for attendance either in person or via webcast. Four of the forums -- on March 16, 19, 23 and 24 -- will be hosted at the Commerce Dept. in Washington. Meanwhile, field hearings will take place on March 17 in Las Vegas, Nevada, and March 18 in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Spokespersons for the NTIA and RUC said on Tuesday that each agency will hold three rounds of grant money disbursements. The NTIA has set April to June of 2009 as the dates for giving out the first round of grants, October through December of 2009 as the dates for the second round, and April through June of 2010 for the third round.

Since the FCC must submit a plan about rural broadband to Congress by May 22, people who want to comment on that subject need to send their ideas to the FCC by March 25.

With billions of dollars at stake in the broadband stimulus package, special interest groups are already chiming in with their opinions and recommendations.

"For too long, federal applications for loans and grants have imposed heavy
administrative cost burdens on small cable companies. ACA is gratified that
the Obama Administration is committed to an open, streamlined process with a
minimum of red tape," said James Polka, president and CEO of the American Cable Association, in a statement on Tuesday.

"ACA members look forward to sitting down with NTIA, FCC, and Agriculture Department officials to discuss the needs of small cable companies interested in seeking grants and loans."

"Huge swaths of the country -- rural and urban -- will contain a mix
of unserved and underserved households and businesses," said S. Derek Turner, research director of Free Press, who has also authored a report called
"Putting the Angels in the Details: A Roadmap for
Broadband Stimulus Success." (PDF available here)

"We encourage the agencies to tackle the immediate problems of unserved areas and last-mile networks, but also to focus on critical questions of
underserved areas, low-income communities and middle-mile
infrastructure. And to maximize the public benefit, these agencies
must ensure that the broadband programs adhere to principles of
affordability, speed, and openness," Turner said on Tuesday.

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