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The U.S. economic stimulus package is law - all $787 billion of it - and of that, $7.2 billion has been set aside for improvements to the nation's broadband infrastructure. Let's take a closer look at what that means.
I should note up front that there was much debate about what should be in the bill, and some critics said that getting more competition into the picture to bring down prices might be the better way to go.
The final, passed version sets aside $2.5 billion of the total $7.2 billion for the "Distance Learning, Telemedicine and Broadband Program." Right off the bat, it's interesting, because you can see that we're not just talking about broadband per se - the government has two applications (distance learning and telemedicine) in mind.
Also interesting is that this $2.5 billion is going to be overseen by the Department of Agriculture. Say what? Yes, Agriculture - because the primary intent is to bring broadband to rural areas that just haven't gotten sufficient access to broadband service to date. Factor in distance learning and telemedicine, and you see that there is potential to more easily bring expertise to remote areas, which is a cool idea.
If you read the document, too, you'll see that it cites the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 as authorizing the cost of broadband loans and loan guarantees, which I'm sure makes sense from a legal standpoint but just tickles me.
The other $4.7 billion of that $7.2 billion in the package is set aside for the "Broadband Technology Opportunities Program." Bits of this are supposed to go toward public computer centers, such as those at libraries and community colleges, and toward "innovative programs to encourage sustainable adoption of broadband service."
But the bulk of it is intended to build out broadband service to unserved and underserved areas and communities across the country. That's what this is all about. Schools, libraries, healthcare providers and community support organizations are given as example recipients, as are "low-income, unemployed, aged, and otherwise vulnerable populations." Public safety agencies are another.
One year from now, the FCC is supposed to submit a "national broadband plan," which "shall seek to ensure that all people of the United States have access to broadband capability and shall establish benchmarks for meeting that goal." The plan will need to specify the best approach for meeting the goal and for ensuring that it is affordable and utilized fully.
All of the contracts are supposed to be awarded by the end of 2010.
Also, in two years, the FCC is supposed to make a "broadband inventory" map available on a public Web site. This would be a map of the United States - interactive and searchable - showing where broadband service is available and what providers are making it available.
It will be interesting to see if the bill achieves its goals. Succeed or fail, the bill is destined to represent one of the networkiest moments in American politics.
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