Broadband stimulus funding timeline set by government

Members from several government agencies delivered on Tuesday a basic timeline for funding broadband stimulus projects, with the goal of getting all broadband stimulus money out the door by October 2010.

Members from several government agencies delivered on Tuesday a basic timeline for funding broadband stimulus projects, with the goal of getting all $7.2 billion of the broadband stimulus money out the door by October 2010.

During a meeting at the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) representative Dr. Bernadette McGuire-Rivera said that the government is planning to have three separate "rounds" to award grants for broadband stimulus projects. The first will occur this spring, the second in the fall and the last in the spring of 2010. The reason for these three rounds, McGuire-Rivera said, is to get money out the door quickly for shovel-ready broadband projects and to save some funds for projects that may take more time to plan.

The United States federal government designated $7.2 billion to fund broadband infrastructure investment in the recently passed economic stimulus package. Of that money, $4.7 billion has been allotted to the NTIA to award grants for projects that will build out broadband infrastructure in unserved or underserved areas, to deliver broadband capabilities for public safety agencies and to stimulate broadband demand through training and education.

The remaining $2.5 billion in broadband stimulus money has been allotted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to make loans to companies building out broadband infrastructure in rural areas. David Villano, the assistant administrator for telecom programs at the USDA, said that his department could only provide loans for projects in rural areas that lacked "sufficient access to high-speed broadband service to facilitate rural development." Villano also said that the USDA would give priority to any projects that would give rural consumers the choice of more than one ISP and that it would also prioritize projects located in areas that "have the highest proportions of rural residents that do not have access to broadband service."

But while the government has set up a basic outline for how it will distribute funds for building out broadband networks, it has yet to concretely define what constitutes an "underserved" rural community. McGuire-Rivera said that the NTIA planned to have several meetings throughout March to discuss how to decide which communities do not have sufficient broadband access and which communities do not need federal assistance to get broadband access. She said that the NTIA and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will also use the meetings to decide how to implement nondiscrimination and network interconnection obligations in all federal broadband stimulus contracts.

In addition to seeking public comment about how to define served and underserved communities, the FCC is looking for input into the most efficient ways to deploy broadband to rural areas. Scott Deutchman, the senior legal advisor for Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps, said that the broadband stimulus package requires the FCC deliver a report on "rural broadband strategy" to Congress by May 22. To this end, the FCC is accepting comments and ideas for rural broadband programs until March 25.

"The report is supposed to include recommendations on promoting interagency coordination of broadband policies and rural broadband initiatives," he said. "I expect the report will be one of the building blocks for the larger national broadband plan."

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