Stimulus Broadband Feedback from Locals Solicited by Federal Government

Local governments seeking broadband stimulus grants will have an opportunity to give input on grant requirements from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

by / February 26, 2009

Before stimulus bill broadband grants flow to local governments, the federal government is seeking input on grant requirements from "interested parties," according to the Federal Register. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will begin holding meetings on March 2 and continue until further notice. The NTIA is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, which is distributing $4.7 billion of the $7.2 billion President Barack Obama detailed in his stimulus package for municipal broadband.

Taking advantage of the meetings is critical for local governments, warned Craig Settles, a municipal broadband analyst.

"Incumbents and large providers know about these meetings, and they'll try to dominate the process to get RFP requirements that favor them," Settles commented. "Communities and smaller providers could lose out, and as a result their economies won't benefit nearly as much as they would if communities are active participants in this process."

To schedule a meeting, call Barbara Brown at the NTIA at (202) 482-4374 or e-mail her at bbrown@ntia.doc.gov. Brown hasn't returned a voicemail from Government Technology yet asking whether "interested parties" may do the meetings via conference call.

The NTIA's $4.7 billion share of the overall $7.2 billion will fund urban and rural broadband while the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) -- part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- will distribute the remaining $2.5 billion for rural broadband exclusively.

Given that vendors and nonprofits will compete for the dollars alongside governments, municipalities should at least demand requirements forcing vendors and nonprofits to collaborate with cities and counties on any deployments, Settles recommended. With no local government input, vendors and nonprofits could build networks that grow their own bottom lines, but don't serve the goals of the local governments. For example, a municipality might want the network to support job creation, health care, telemedicine and digital inclusion. Different forms of broadband serve different goals better than others.

"It's a question of whether or not you get fiber or wireless. If you get wireless, do you get Wi-Fi or WiMAX or some variation of that?" Settles said.

Local governments should also insist that the NTIA keep state bureaucrats and legislators out of the process, Settles cautioned.

"If cities can't go directly to the federal government, they're going to have to ask, 'What are the state stipulations?'" he said, later adding, "If you're in a state like Louisiana, that's problematic because the state's Legislature, thanks to incumbent influence, is decidedly hostile to community networks."

"Every layer of government that steps into this process is a potential bottleneck. They have different influencers, different agendas," Settles said.

The directors of the NTIA and RUS, which Obama has yet to appoint, will decide the eligibility requirements. The bill assigns no deadlines for completing those requirements, but they'll likely come soon because the money needs to be spent by 2010, Settles said. He predicts local governments with written municipal-broadband strategies that were shelved after the municipal-Wi-Fi fad ended will be the first recipients. Governments will simply adjust those strategies to satisfy whatever requirements the federal government publishes, Settles speculated.

"I think urban underserved communities need to be represented as much as rural ones," he said. "Though muni-wireless fell short in many cities, I believe the broadband stimulus is going to resurrect quite a few of these network projects, but force a better business model."

Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.

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