RUS in a Post-Broadband Stimulus World

Rural Utilities Services (RUS) Administrator Jonathan Adelstein and I have had a couple of opportunities to chat at events where one or both of us delivered presentations. Since we’ve had some interesting exchanges I decided to go for a formal Q & A with the one of the three central figures in the broadband stimulus program (NTIA’s Larry Strickling and the FCC’s Julius Genechowski being the other two).

My big interest is in what’s next on the agenda for RUS once they wrap up their part in the program. Many of those rural communities not fortunate enough to get a piece of the stimulus still plan to push forward for broadband in their respective areas, so it’s important for them to understand that RUS’ role doesn’t end September 30.

Administrator Adelstein’s comments are followed by my short assessment. This adds a coda to my recent analysis of RUS’s first group of Round 2 stimulus grants.

As a bonus to my loyal readers, I tossed in at the end here an interesting tidbit for some of you sports fans. The actual first time Administrator Adelstein and I shared a public venue was almost three decades ago and totally unrelated to technology.

Check back tomorrow for a re-cap of my recent meeting at the FCC. If I’m not careful, D.C. is going to become a second home.

Q. If it succeeds, how will the move by Congress to eliminate $600 million in grants affect the remaining grant funding process?

I can only speak to our current efforts and not to changes that may or may not occur down the road. Our focus is on utilizing the funds made available by the Recovery Act to help rural Americans gain greater access to broadband technologies.

Q. What courses of action are open to communities that do not receive grant awards, but still want broadband?

The ARRA broadband programs have been a unique opportunity to help build the infrastructure in rural America but it is not the only broadband program we have to offer. There will still be the Farm Bill programs, and funding through various other programs at USDA. Programs already supporting broadband service that will continue in the future include Community Connect and Distance Learning and Telemedicine

What role(s) will RUS have in the national broadband plan?

We will have to wait for the final decisions regarding the plan and whatever regulations are developed. USDA programs are noted in the FCC report as worthy of continuation and expansion to ensure the needs of rural America are met. For the moment, we will continue to monitor the activity and participate as requested in providing input as it moves ahead.

RUS is obviously a major proponent of private financing as part of the broadband solution in underserved areas. As the ARRA process concludes, do you think financial institutions will support broadband projects absent Federal government support?

There’s clearly a role for both the private and public sectors in investing in this critical infrastructure. Private investment is a significant component of broadband projects for both the underlying USDA broadband program and the Recovery Act program. The existing broadband infrastructure demonstrates that private and public funding have been successfully deployed to finance projects, and we expect that trend to continue in the future.

Q. What do you think it will take for the U.S. to see another grant program similar to the broadband stimulus?

The vision of ARRA that President Obama signed into law in 2009 will help stimulate the economy and be a springboard for employment in both rural and urban areas. When people realize how effective this program is in both the short-term and for the future, perhaps it will move the leadership to continue ARRA-like funding or increase funding for other broadband programs that have demonstrated value and benefit to the American people. Keeping the momentum for ubiquitous broadband moving forward will keep us competitive with the global economy.

What’s next from RUS – IMHO?

One of the most important takeaways here is that RUS is about more than broadband stimulus. As you strategize for life post-stimulus and sans-Google (if you don’t win the big Google gigabit payday), obtaining federal grants still should be one of the plan’s objectives. You don’t want your ideas to live or die based solely on grants and prize winnings, but at the same time, money breeds money. Grant’s can be seed money that leads to mo’ money, mo’ money, mo’ money.

My Twitter In-box is alive with bitter commentary about the lack of funding for wireless projects in the first batch of Round 2 awards. I didn’t broach that question with the Administrator since his position on this is covered in my analysis of these grants: there are plenty more grants to be awarded, and wireless winners are waiting in the wings. That said, there is a definite perception that fiber is the apple of RUS’ eye. This view is unfortunate since, as we wait to see what other grant awards reveal of RUS thinking, it entrenches a fiber-vs.-wireless mindset when more communities should be thinking “hybrid networks.”

And speaking of hybrid networks, one hopes that if the FCC is going to turn to RUS as an ally agency for the national broadband plan and USF reform, an end product will be Federal-level support for wired/wireless solutions. The FCC is leaning heavily toward wireless, but with a 4 Mbps ceiling for max broadband speed. RUS is investing heavily in fiber, but strongly believes wireless has a role. Folks, go find some wireless companies with a sense of true innovation, marry them with entities doing fiber deployments. Then you create kick-ass broadband solutions that blow the doors off of 4 Mbps.

Administrator Adelstein’s last response carries an implied call to action. With all of the political baggage that many community broadband projects must carry, it’s important for project teams to publicize their early victories, whether they be new jobs on the buildout side, or new companies coming to town to capitalize on highspeed access. This is not the time to hide your light under a bushel. We have to convince Congress to expand rather than undercut broadband programs, and trumpeting early successes helps our cause.

Something that Adelstein mentioned in the July 1 press conference points to an action communities need to pursue more forcefully. “State governments are being awarded projects that they’ve made a strong case for, and we expect them to continue supporting these broadband projects.” His comment and many others recently, reinforced by a report from The Pew Center on the States, highlight the need to increase state government and agencies support for community initiatives. If your state government isn’t at or near the top of you list of “Target Stakeholders,”  make it so, Number 1.

Bonus track

Some of you may be aware that the Administrator attended Stanford University. I happened to go to Cal Berkeley. The rivalry between the schools’ football teams runs passionate, deep and decades long, especially among those like myself who were in the Cal Marching Band. He and I tend to look past our contentious history (at least in public). But it turns out Jonathan and I were in the stands a mere 50 yards apart, not at just any Cal-Stanford game, but at the game that produced – The Play! And no, the player’s knee did not touch the ground.

Tomorrow don’t miss my re-cap of a meeting I recently had with the FCC.

4 Responses

  1. You SHOULD have asked him about wireless, especially mobile. Right now, less than 40% of the BIP funds remain and they’ve barely done ANY wireless, let alone mobile wireless.

    • I should have been clearer. I asked Mr. Adelstein about wireless in the press conference that announced this latest group of winners. His response and my reaction to it are in the analysis I linked to in the 3rd paragraph.

      In a nutshell, he said wait until more of the awards are out and we should see some wireless projects funded. Mr. Adelstein also stated that it’s not obvious when you read the summaries of grant awards, but a number of Round 1 awards are for hybrid wired/wireless projects.

  2. I’m not holding my breath…

  3. What makes you think there’s only 40% of RUS’s funds left to distribute? You might be right but it doesn’t match my calculations and I’ve never seen an agency statement about how much they actually have left.

    Also, Adelstien has allegedly told private audiences that the next set of announcements due within the next two weeks will focus on wireless applications.

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