This month the country took the first steps down a very important road – the expansion of broadband access to all Americans. Included in the Obama Administration’s $787 billion stimulus package is $7.2 billion for grants and loans designed to expand broadband access in the United States. For the first time our government has, in effect, said that broadband access is a “right” and is using substantial public funds to make it happen.
So here are the basics. The bulk of the funds — $4.7 billion – will be distributed through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and the rest through the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) program out of the Dept. of Agriculture. The FCC has launched www.broadband.gov and has committed to having a national broadband policy by next spring. The format for applications has been set (NOFA in DC speak) and applications are being solicited. Let the expansion begin!
Of course, it isn’t that simple. Step one is understanding exactly what all the terms used by the FCC actually mean when it comes to underserved areas. A blog post from Tellabs, a major telecom equipment manufacturer, has a good glossary here.
Another wrinkle — there is no map that shows exactly the extent of broadband availability today. In fact the stimulus dollars set aside $350 million for the purpose of creating such a map. But existing service providers have been fighting against releasing detailed information, claiming such info is proprietary.
And there may be drawbacks to casting too wide a net in an attempt to be transparent and inclusive. Blair Levin, former chief of staff to the FCC under Commissioner Reed Hundt and now point man for broadband at the agency, is none to impressed with the quality of public comments to date. He told this to Reuters and some other news outlets. And the NTIA is asking for applicants to volunteer as reviewers for broadband funding — isn’t some kind of expertise required?
So the story is just starting to be written, and the devil is most certainly in the details. But hey, just last year the FCC was defining broadband as anything over 200 kpbs! Lots of progress has been made, billions have been made available and we seem to be moving in the right direction. We should all watch carefully how this noble experiment unfolds.
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