Agencies Shed Small Light on Broadband Funding

With $7.2 billion to spend on building new broadband networks, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Rural Utilities Service and the Federal Communications Commission hold a full-house meeting to discuss the first steps in enacting the funding allocated under the economic stimulus plan.

In a packed U.S. Department of Commerce meeting room, three federal agencies March 10 shed the first light on how the government plans to proceed with dispensing $7.2 billion for the building of broadband networks to unserved and underserved parts of the country. The money is part of the economic stimulus act recently approved by Congress.
The new law allocates $4.7 billion of the funding to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the remaining $2.5 billion to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Federal Communications Commission will work with the NTIA and USDA to develop the open networks provisions attached to the funding.
According to the NTIA's Bernadette McGuire-Rivera, the funds will be distributed over three rounds, with the first occurring this spring, followed by a round of funding in the fall and the final round in the spring of 2010. The RUS (Rural Utilities Service) of the USDA will follow the same three-round routine.
Beyond the time schedule, the three agencies could provide few other answers about how the broadband program will work. "We're not sure," was the most popular answer among the agency officials conducting the meeting.
To help flesh out the details, the NTIA, RUS and FCC will hold a series of public hearings. The meetings will take place March 16-24 in Washington, D.C.; Las Vegas; and Flagstaff, Ariz. The meetings will be Webcast.
"The fact that we are here today talking about President Barack Obama's commitment to bring broadband to the four corners of this country-fueled by his belief that it is key to this country's economic recovery-should be evidence enough to everyone here-if you need any more evidence-that change has truly come to Washington," acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps said in his opening remarks. "This will be a truly inclusive process. It will have comprehensive private sector and public sector input. It will ask the tough questions that must be answered if we are to succeed."
Copps went on to level criticism at his own agency under the direction of former Republican chairmen Michael Powell and Kevin Martin.
"Seven years ago, shortly after I went to the FCC, the Commission issued another of its congressionally mandated Section 706 reports about whether advanced telecom services were being deployed around America in a reasonable and timely manner. The answer always was, 'Yes, everything's great, don't worry, be happy.' I wasn't happy and I did worry," Copps said. "Too few consumers and small businesses in this country have the high-speed broadband they need if they're going to succeed. We pay too much for service that is too slow. It's holding us back as individuals; it has cost our economy billions; and things are only going to get worse if we don't do something about it."
Broadband advocates hope new data from the FCC will help clarify who in the United States is unserved or underserved when it comes to a broadband connection. Under Powell and Martin, the FCC counted a ZIP code as served as long as there was at least one broadband subscriber in the ZIP code. The reporting method led many to charges that the FCC was overstating U.S. broadband penetration rates.
Under an FCC order approved last year, broadband providers will now be required to report the number of subscribers in a census track in addition to subscribers in a ZIP code. The providers will also for the first time be required to report on the speeds of the broadband service provided to customers. In addition, broadband providers will have to separate consumers from business subscribers in their reporting to the FCC.