Standing room only was the scene this morning at the Department of Commerce in Washington D.C. for the Broadband Initiative Kick-Off meeting to discuss the rural broadband stimulus program. The meeting was jointly hosted by the Department’s of Commerce and Agriculture, both of whom will administer the $7.2 billion America Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 broadband program. If the goal of attending this meeting was to walk away with specific details about the program, you walked away disappointed. To be fair, this program is moving so fast and the issues are so complex, it’s unrealistic to think program definitions can be available this quickly. Part of the purpose of this meeting was to encourage public participation in defining the details we all desire.
As is customary with these events, various ‘dignitaries’ offered their view of the opportunity and challenges of this program. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak said, “today we begin another chapter and journey to provide broadband technology to all of America,” referencing past historical infrastructure investment activities, including the bringing telephone service to rural America. Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps commented, “for years we’ve been asking – where is the policy for broadband? Where is the beef?” He feels that this program begins the process of answering these questions. Rick Wade, Acting Chief of Staff for the Department of Commerce outlined the plan’s goals, which include: 1) close broadband gap across America; 2) stimulate investment in broadband infrastructure; 3) create jobs; 4) provide broadband access to schools, libraries, and other community centers; and 5) encourage and stimulate broadband demand.
Some limited details of the program were offered:
- There are a series of upcoming open meetings to discuss plan details and requirements beginning March 16th in D.C., March 17th in Las Vegas, and March 18th in Flagstaff, Arizona
- There will be three grant distribution rounds, with rough time frames of April – June 2009, October – December 2009, and April – June 2010
- Applicants can apply to both the NTIA and RUS programs, with some limitations
- RUS will issue a ‘notice of funding availability’ within 60 days which will outline the amount of available funds, application requirements, scoring and evaluation criteria for applicants, and reporting requirements. Additional notices will follow during the life of the program
- Projects should be able to commence immediately
- 75% of geography should be unserved or underserved rural territory for projects
Lot’s of interesting questions were posed to the administrators of the program, including the one on everyone’s mind – what exactly is unserved/underserved? No detailed answer was provided. Surprise.
Much more information to come.