Better Broadband & Better Lives

States Seek Best Strategies on Obtaining Broadband Stimulus Funds Close-to-Home

in Broadband Stimulus/NTIA by

WASHINGTON, March 16, 2009 – As the Obama administration on Monday begins poring over the nitty-gritty details about how they will be spending $7.2 billion in broadband stimulus funds, individual states are grappling to find their own best strategies to tap the funds.

At the public meeting on March 10, officials at the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration made clear that the broadband grants – unlike the past several decades’ trend toward “block grants” – will not be channeled through states.

Rather, with the exception that at least one grant be awarded within each state, the NTIA’s broadband grants will up for grabs by the most qualified applicant.

But that hasn’t discouraged representatives from states and state groups.

In fact, many are quite pleased with the way the broadband stimulus program is taking shape, and are eager to have their voice heard in the next phase of the broadband stimulus process.

Among their grounds for optimism:

  • States and their political subdivisions are themselves eligible to receive grants through the various broadband programs of the NTIA and the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service.
  • States have the on-the-ground knowledge about particular communications needs that positions them to play the kind of coordinative and facilitative role that will be necessarily in an expedited process of broadband expenditures.
  • States’ engagement with economic development officials allows them to work collaboratively with both public- and private-sector partners.
  • States have been among the principal players in the attempts to map out broadband deployment.
  • States have filled what many regard as a leadership void in the field of broadband policy over the past several years.

Almost immediately following the March 10 public meeting, for example, broadband officials in the state of Illinois held in a conference call to consider statewide strategies to tap into federal dollars.

Prior to assuming the governorship, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn had assumed the cause of broadband, saying that “We have to be the modern-day, 21st century Johnny Appleseeds, planting good technology projects all over the state.” He did so as part of the state’s Broadband Deployment Council.

Massachusetts, another state leading the broadband drive, announced that it, too, would hold a conference call on Thursday, March 19th, from Noon to 1:00 p.m., to discuss broadband stimulus in Massachusetts.

The conference call is being organized by the Massachusetts Broadband Initiative, a non-profit with $40 million in state funds seeking to ensure universal broadband within the state.

That next phase of the broadband stimulus debate begins on March 16 with a six-day series of public meetings of the NTIA and RUS. Meetings on March 16, March 19, March 23 and March 24 will be in Washington. The meeting on March 17 will be in Las Vegas, and March 18 will be in Flagstaff, Ariz.

These state actors believe that states are poised to play an important and influential role in the process.
“The states bring a good deal to the table” when it comes to broadband policy, said Indiana Utility Regulatory Commissioner Larry Landis. “This is going to be a huge undertaking for NTIA, and the states can help them get up to speed relatively quickly.”

Landis, co-chair of a joint board proposing broadband actions by both state regulators and the Federal Communications Commission of the NARUC, points to the way that states stepped in over the past several years to fill a perceived void in federal policy-making with respect to broadband. At least 39 states have taken some steps toward creating statewide broadband policies and better access, he said.

In addition to Massachusetts and Illinois, California conducted a detailed census of broadband availability and speeds, which it released in January 2008. Over the past 18 months, Virginia directed money from a tobacco lawsuit settlement to provide the best-quality broadband possible to its rural industrial parks. And the Minnesota legislature, in passing its broadband legislation last summer, toyed with the notion of requiring broadband on the order of 1 Gigabit per second, or more than three orders of magnitude higher than what currently passes for “broadband” under the FCC’s definition.

BroadbandCensus.com has been profiling the state of broadband, and of broadband, within each state at http://broadbandcensus.com/blog/2008/09/broadband-census-in-the-states/.

Several state-level officials – including D.C. Public Service Commission Chairman Betty Ann Kane, New York State Public Service Commissioner Maureen Harrison, and National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners President Frederick Butler – will be featured during the NTIA/RUS events.

Chairman Kane, for example, is a featured speaker at Monday’s first panel, a panel of private sector eligibility. Kane has been working with the NARUC/FCC joint board on broadband, and has been focusing on creating a web site in which the efforts of the states may be showcased and coordinated. Butler and Harrison are scheduled for subsequent meetings.

Kane is also a confirmed panelist at BroadbandCensus.com’s Broadband Breakfast Club event on Tuesday, April 14, from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., at the Old Ebbitt Grill. Registration for the event is available at http://broadbandbreakfast.eventbrite.com.

In the lead-up to Congress’ passage of the federal stimulus legislation on February 13, states were actively lobbying on the issue. “States have intimate knowledge of the communications environment, geography, and demographics within their boundaries,” said Butler, president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissions.

Further, said Butler, “states can assure efficient utilization and targeting of stimulus monies and states have every incentive to make certain the money is not wasted.” Of particular concern to Butler was that “early adopter states should not be penalized,” according to a NARUC policy statement.

In other words, a state like Massachusetts shouldn’t become ineligible to recoup broadband funds spent out of its own treasury prior to the enactment of broadband stimulus legislation.

Massachusetts and a group of six other states made similar points in their own position paper, “Broadband Investment for Economic Recovery: Perspectives of an Ad-Hoc Group of State Broadband Entities,” (PDF) submitted to the administration and to Congress on February 9.

The states, including Arizona, Georgia, Maine, New York, North Carolina and South Carolina, called themselves “a small sample of the many states that are well positioned to make quick use of federal monies to partner in the effort to build out much needed broadband infrastructure.”

They argued for the full $7 billion in funding, for ensuring that the bulk of funding was made available through grants and not through loans, and that in-kind contributions by states be allowed to meet the 20 percent matching requirement called for the stimulus law.

Editor’s Note

4/2 – The preceeding story has corrected to the name of the President of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. It is Frederick Butler.

Drew Clark is the Chairman of the Broadband Breakfast Club. He tracks the development of Gigabit Networks, broadband usage, the universal service fund and wireless policy @BroadbandCensus. He is also Of Counsel with the firm of Best Best & Krieger LLP, with offices in California and Washington, DC. He works with cities, special districts and private companies on planning, financing and coordinating efforts of the many partners necessary to construct broadband infrastructure and deploy “Smart City” applications. You can find him on LinkedIN and Twitter. The articles and posts on BroadbandBreakfast.com and affiliated social media are not legal advice or legal services, do not constitute the creation of an attorney-client privilege, and represent the views of their respective authors.

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