The Scoop on NARUC: From Washington to Main Street, Broadband Questions Remain

Broadband Stimulus, States November 18th, 2009

, Special Correspondent, BroadbandBreakfast.com

CHICAGO, November 18, 2009 – One striking sentiment dominated this week’s convention of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners: The federal government remains on nearly as steep a learning curve on crafting the future of broadband as many state agencies, and the best work ahead will likely get done when public and private concerns team up.

“Of course more needs to be done, and they’re still learning [in Washington] how to reliably and effectively get the funds out,” said David Svanda of Svanda Consulting in Clarksville, Md., and a past president of NARUC.

“It’s an ongoing learning process, and they clearly have their feelers out to learn more,” said Svanda. “I think they’ll take very seriously what they hear here. You couldn’t have two better people on the case.”

By “they,” Svanda meant Larry Strickling, of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and Jonathan Adelstein, of the Rural Utility Service.

These two key Obama administration broadband players have only been on the job only since the summer: the Senate confirmed Strickling in June, and Adelstein in July.

They have their hands full intrying to figure out how to distribute $7.2 billion in broadband stimulus funding by September 2010.

Are Strickling and Adelstein really the “rock stars” of broadband? That’s how panel moderator Phil Jones of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission labeled them. To that end, the two are still “on tour,” with yet another congressional appearance in the works shortly.

“We kind of have a road show, ‘The Johnny and Larry Show,’” Adelstein joked. “We’ve testified three times before Congress and will testify again Thursday.” (It likely won’t be the last time, either.)

If their commitment to moving broadband into the 21st Century sounded forceful, the folks at the Federal Communications Commission withstood a little good-natured ribbing.

Charles Davidson of the Advanced Communication Law Project at New York Law School said he anchored a report on broadband adoption, in part, “to bring the FCC out of a half-decade winter solstice.” An FCC official was seated just a few chairs to his right on his panel.

In a similar fashion, Davidson challenged the widely-held stereotype that schools remain bastions of broadband innovation. “There are not a whole lot of incentives in place to get teachers to use the Internet in the classroom. As a society, we can’t afford to wait two decades for that culture change to occur.”

Davidson sees no less than 60 areas standing between Washington’s best intentions, private sector investment, and full broadband adoption. And some of those won’t be easy to solve, even with 100 trucks full of fiber-optic cable: Seniors, for example, remain slow to adopt broadband, in part because many remain suspicious of the Internet.

For others, overcoming broadband suspicion remains more a matter of teaming the public and private sectors without raising irrational fears over someone robbing the coffers at City Hall.

Larry Landis, commissioner of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission thinks the NARUC conference represented a call for his colleagues to “look at things freshly. When Verizon put fiber into the ground in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, we were able to streamline the permitting process.”

This led to a drop in costs of more than 20 percent, he said, and faster installation. “If we look at government to think of new ways and creative ways to help through the process of infrastructure, that can help as well,” Landis said.

Also, an unlikely if sublime star of the NARUC conference: Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn. Though he took office in February after the impeachment of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Quinn doesn’t have to worry about creating a solid broadband plan for his state. The reason? As lieutenant governor, Quinn went the extra mile to create broadband policy and access for rural areas, small businesses and those in public safety and education.

Many attending the conference believe that governors and state officials nationwide might do well to pick Quinn’s brain. His involvement with public utilities policy goes back more than 25 years. As a consumer advocate, he formed Illinois’ Citizens Utility Board in 1983. For his own part, Quinn saw NARUC as a fascinating opportunity to get caught up on broadband planning initiatives.

And to that end, Quinn’s own plans as Illinois governor remain ambitious.

“We want everyone in Illinois to have access to high-speed Internet, especially students, those in law enforcement and health care providers,” Quinn said. “My policy is everybody in, nobody left out.”

For that matter, why leave out those seeking to expand their grasp on broadband policy and planning? NARUC attendees got to hear all about the initiatives at www.broadbandbestpractices.org. On this web site, state agencies and commissions, along with private-sector groups, can enter or read about useful information concerning broadband projects, past and present. Unsurprisingly, the site is hosted by NARUC itself.

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