WASHINGTON, March 11, 2009 – Despite a packed-to-capacity auditorium, long lines and occasionally unanswered questions, reactions to Tuesday’s unveiling of the Obama administration’s $7.2 billion stimulus program were generally very positive among attendees and industry observers.
An informal survey of attendees after the event generated generally enthusiastic responses to Tuesday’s program by attendees – but also several notes of caution.
Most were optimistic about the prospects that the broadband stimulus program would generate economic growth – and opportunities for their bottom lines. An additional theme in responses was pleasure at the Obama administration’s stated commitment to transparency.
The program was unveiled by Commerce Department Acting Chief of Staff Rick Wade, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and acting Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Copps.
Comptel CEO Jerry James said he was pleased by the transparency showcased by the event, which accommodated numerous people in overflow rooms and was webcast over the Internet. The event was a “positive meeting,” presenting “good insight…with a diversity of interests,” he said. Jones called the process further advanced than he had expected.
Temple Strategies partner Joel Bernstein acknowledged that there were “lots of questions that needed to be answered. But he praised the “very measured responses” from the panel.
The panel included NTIA Senior Advisor Mark Seifert, tapped to head up administration of the agency’s broadband stimulus program; NTIA Associate Administrator Bernadette McGuire-Rivera; David Villano, Assistant Administrator for Telecommunications Programs, USDA Rural Development; and Scott Deutschman, Acting Senior Legal Advisor to Copps.
The NTIA said it was planning to issue grants for its $4.7 billion in three windows of time: between April and June 2009, between October and December 2009, and between April and June 2010. The RUS hasn’t determined when it will issue grants from among its pool of $2.5 billion, but it will also do so in three windows, said Villano.
The agencies involved have a “herculean task” ahead of them, said Bernstein. He praised the three-round approach to grant-making by allowing the agency to pick the “low-hanging fruit” first.
“I am optimistically pessimistic,” said Peter Tenhula, vice president of regulatory affairs at Shared Spectrum Company. The NTIA is “seeking a lot of comments, but there are a lot of unknowns, a lot to be determined.”
Tenhula said the process could go wrong if the agency “focuses to much on laying technology that is on the shelf now – and not future-proofing deployment” with next-generation wired and wireless services.
The agency officials were “not able to give any answers to most questions,” added Vince D’Onofrio, president of Radio Frontier, an Arlington, Va.-based consultant. “From my perspective, I believe the whole process is still subject to influence.”
“There is a long road ahead in defining the process,” added Tom Peters, a partner at the consultancy Wireless Strategy, which is based in McLean, Va. He referred to the fact that the program is requiring the government to distribute all funds by September 2009, and for all monies to be in the pipeline for spending within two years.
“Both of those concepts are admirable, but aggressive and bordering on unrealistic,” said Peters.
Dow Lohnes Government Strategies chairman Kenneth Salomon said that broad-bush criticisms of the meeting were incorrect. “I thought the meeting was quite informative” and substantive, he said.”
Salomon, once deputy chief counsel to NTIA, compared the broadband grants program to NTIA’s former Technology Opportunities Program (“TOP”).
“If you look at the [stimulus] statute…and the rules and procedures for the TOP program, you could get a running start on your application,” said Salomon The TOP process includes many of the same “key parts” in the stimulus grant application process, Salomon said, adding that McGuire-Rivera highlighted these facts in her presentation.
Salomon said that while NTIA will certainly meet its statutory obligations, he “wouldn’t be surprised if NTIA didn’t follow [the traditional rulemaking format] by looking for ways to speed up the process.”
– Drew Clark, Editor, BroadbandCensus.com, and Cody Williams, Special Correspondent, BroadbandCensus.com, contributed to this report.