First Broadband Stimulus Awards for Infrastructure Announced Today

THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Vice President
EMBARGOED UNTIL DECEMBER 17TH, 6:00 AM EST
December 16, 2009 

Vice President Biden will kick off over $2 billion in Recovery Act grants and loans that will be made on a rolling basis over the next 75 days to bring broadband to communities that currently have little or no access to the technology. 

At an event at Impulse Manufacturing in Dawsonville, Georgia, he will announce an initial $182 million investment in eighteen broadband projects benefiting seventeen states which has already been matched by over $46 million in private capital.  The awards are not only expected to provide initial job opportunities in infrastructure and manufacturing, but help bridge the digital divide and boost economic development for communities held back by limited or no access to the technology.  Secretaries Locke and Vilsack will also visit communities benefiting from these initial awards in the coming days.

Dawsonville is part of an entire northern Georgia region that stands to benefit from a $33 million award the Vice President will announce on Thursday for the North Georgia Network Cooperative, Inc.  The funding will bring sufficient broadband access to the same rural Georgia foothill communities that in the early 1960s benefited from significant investments by President Kennedy’s Appalachian Regional Commission.  ARC investments at the time brought a new job-producing textile and manufacturing base to these counties, including Union, Towns, Rabun, Habersham, White, Lumpkin, Dawson and Forsyth.

Now, almost 50 years later, the region is facing serious economic challenges as manufacturing jobs are cut and factories shuttered, and is looking to reinvent itself once again by building a technology-based economy – which is heavily dependent on broadband access.  The proposed project will benefit an eight county area with an estimated population of more than 334,000 people and pass through 146 county government facilities, 82 public schools, 7 technical institutions, colleges and universities and 4 hospitals. 

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 The release only named one of the winners. Once the whole list is revealed and I have some time to review the details on the proposals, I’ll write a full analysis. But in the meantime, there are a couple of interesting first impressions worth mentioning.

This is a middle mile project. One of my Twitter contacts indicated that this initial batch of winners will all be middle mile or infrastructure for anchor institutions such as hospitals, libraries, etc. If this proves to be true, it would seem to indicate that these are easier projects to rally around. Expect more of the same. The first batch of winners will only increase the pressure to award money faster, so why not go with what you know.

Biden should be giving these award winners a Purple Heart along with everything else given what applicants had to go through to get to this magic moment.  This Georgia project was challenged by a regional DSL service provider, which obviously didn’t alter the final outcome, so everyone should breathe a little easier knowing that a challenge isn’t an automatic kiss of death. In my opinion, though, a mechanism enabling incumbent providers to challenge an applicant for proposing to cover an area already covered loses some street cred when 11,000 challenges are filed. I immediately think of frivolous lawsuits. 

The northern Georgia proposal was endorsed by the Governor’s office, which if holds true for most of the other 17 awardees, then people who did not get a nod from their respective governors may start to get a little nervous. The precedence will be set for the agencies to follow the path of least resistance.

An interesting thing happened at the FCC’s meeting yesterday to give their progress report on the national broadband strategy they’re creating. Most of the news accounts of this meeting talked about how public activists are very unhappy that the FCC didn’t talk a lot more about how they plan to foster competition, in part with an open Internet that allows competitors to use the same infrastructure.

What caught my ear were the statements that said, in essence, community and public broadband networks are going to be part of the mix as far a the national strategy goes. Translation: municipal networks will be encouraged. The FCC crew at the field workshop on Monday in Memphis made a similar statement. And lookie here today. One of the first stimulus grant winners announced is run by a nonprofit public coop. 

The winds are blowing toward municipal run networks or municipal/nonprofit-driven public/private partnerships. I do agree that in the national strategy, emphasis needs to go to wrestling the incumbents into a position that opens up more Internet infrastructure to competition. But I also know that funding public and nonprofit networks guarantee some infrastructures will foster competition. I believe that these stimulus projects and FCC strategy will encourage more open public networks, particularly if Universal Service Fund reform produces billions in additional funding for open broadband infrastructure.

More here once I see the full list. 18.

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