Groups urge changes to broadband stimulus programs

Two U.S. government agencies distributing $7.2 billion in broadband deployment grants and loans over the next year should make big changes before a second round of funding starts, several groups have told the agencies.

Recent recommendations for the broadband deployment programs at the U.S. Rural Utilities Service (RUS) and the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) were all over the map, however.

The New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative and 37 other groups asked the two agencies to make all broadband applications public and available online in their entirety, instead of just including summaries. In addition, the groups -- including Public Knowledge, the Benton Foundation and the National Congress Of American Indians, also asked the agencies to prioritize comprehensive, community-based middle-mile projects; to set aside US$50 million for a small grants program; and to host funding workshops for disadvantaged populations.

The 38 groups' recommendations are intended to "improve the application and award process by emphasizing national and societal gain over the gain of individual applicants," they said in a document filed with the two agencies this week.

The broadband deployment funds are available under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a $787 billion economic stimulus package passed by the U.S. Congress early this year. NTIA and RUS are scheduled to distribute about $4 billion in grants and loans this month, but the two agencies have asked for proposals on how to improve their funding process in a second round next year.

Some lawmakers and outside groups have raised concerns about the first round of funding, with questions about whether the funds would go to support projects for areas that already have some broadband service, and concerns about whether the agencies are moving fast enough. Some critics have called for more transparency in the funding process, and others have suggested the agencies have aimed the funding at the wrong types of projects.

While the New America Foundation and allied groups called for the agencies to put priority on community-based middle-mile projects, the Organization for the Promotion and Advancement of Small Telecommunications Companies (OPASTCO), a trade group, called on the agencies to not give priority to certain kinds of projects.

"All of these kinds of projects promote worthy goals," OPASTCO staffers wrote. "However, the relative benefits of awarding funding to individual applicants are dependent on many factors that may vary greatly from one proposal to another."

In some areas, middle-mile projects may be the most beneficial, while in other areas, last-mile projects or those focused on specific populations may have a greater impact, OPASTCO said in a filing this week. "The agencies should not predetermine the best use of the remaining funding," the trade group said. "Each application should be assessed on its own merits."

OPASTCO also called on the agencies to require a financial history from all applicants, to enforce net neutrality rules on all types of projects, not just wired broadband, and to allow applicants covering rural areas to apply directly to the NTIA for grants, instead of first applying to the RUS and being considered for the NTIA programs only if rejected by the RUS.

Meanwhile, USTelecom, another trade group, urged the agencies to ease net neutrality rules contained in the first round of applications. Those rules discouraged large broadband providers from applying for the programs, the trade group said.

Many of our nations most experienced broadband providers were forced to sit on the sidelines during the first round of funding, explained USTelecom President and CEO Walter McCormick Jr. in a statement. From day one, we set out to better understand why that was the case and to communicate in a constructive way with NTIA and RUS on how we can improve the process."

USTelecom also suggested that the agencies focus more on projects that are sustainable. Without such a requirement, stimulus funds are likely to be wasted on unsustainable or unrealistic projects with little long-term public benefit," USTelecom said in its filing.

Five groups focused on minority broadband needs called on the two agencies to focus more money on broadband demand. Just $250 million of the broadband stimulus funding is focused on issues suppressing broadband adoption, while only 32 percent of Spanish-speaking Hispanic adults in the U.S. use the Internet, said the groups, including One Economy and the National Urban League.

"We will not be able to achieve the significant increase in penetration of end-user adoption if we do not focus on the barriers to adoption such as the price for broadband and hardware, digital literacy training, and the dissemination of relevant content," the groups said.

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