Broadband Stimulus – Are We There Yet?

Now that the dust has cleared, some people are wondering if they should pop the champagne corks on last Friday’s victory getting the broadband investment in Obama’s stimulus bill passed. Go ahead, pop ‘em, but don’t drink too much. There’s a long road still ahead.

In January I released a report, Fighting the Next Good Fight, that lays out a high-level roadmap to a national broadband strategy that makes sense and gets the job done right. The recommended steps reflect several points that eventually made it into the bill (I’m selling crystal balls next month).

Here are some addition recommendations as we hit the next part of this winding road.                                                        

Two more rivers to cross

THE most important thing over the next 60 days is to be sure activists, politicians, local communities and other broadband supporters keep a close eye on the RFP-writing process that governs grant distribution. These RFPs give the stimulus bill specific direction and teeth or, if influenced by opponents, can neuter the best intent of the bill.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) within the Commerce Dept. and the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) within the USDA are the main RFP authors. However, NTIA has a former Sprint exec as acting director who is almost certain to remain as deputy director once a final director is chosen. And RUS has a bad history of sitting on grant money instead of getting it where people need it. Watch these entities like a hawk and raise your voices so the RFP requirements are in the best interest of local communities.

Similarly, broadband supporters must pay close attention to their state governors and legislatures. Every layer this money must pass through can have people whose interests are not aligned with the best interests of broadband, or they are occupied with meeting many needs and priorities, or the temptation is great to move money elsewhere.

Know who’s driving this thing

Local communities need to realize they’re in the drivers seat. Do not assume the big incumbents own the only racetrack in town. The stimulus bill advocates technology-neutral requirements, as much network speed as possible and local government involvement in some way with every project that’s funded.

Look to local or regional service and equipment providers. Consider every technology as potentially an element of your network, from wireless to fiber to satellite, and in all of their variations. If you need a gigabyte per second per symmetrical speed, and some outfit is willing to provide it at a reasonable cost, go for it.

If you don’t have a business plan, get one. If you have one already, fine-tune it based on the RFPs. That’s a given. What you must include in the plan, which may not be obvious to some, is a clear path from initial buildout to business sustainability for these networks. The grant money only covers 80% of buildout costs. That network’s going to cost you something to complete, operate, maintain and upgrade.

Don’t be blinded by the gold. Ask the hard questions now. Who’s going to buy services on the network? Do you have anchor tenants in mind that will buy enough services to cover 60% – 70% of the sustainability costs? 

Finally, read the broadband stimulus bill. It’s only 11 pages. 

There are more issues, of course, but for now these are key ones that help ensure the early steps move us toward the broadband goals the nation needs to achieve. 

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