WASHINGTON, October 22, 2010 - Now that all of the broadband stimulus funding has been distributed, its effectiveness can now be evaluated. That was the message at the Broadband Breakfast Club on Tuesday, October 19. Video of the event was released on Friday. While the long term value of the stimulus is still unknown, panelists were able to gauge the way in which the funds were distributed.
Overall, panelists felt that the program was well established. Benton Foundation Chairman Charles Benton praised the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Rural Utilities Service for working relentlessly and for their hard work given their limited resources. He gave the program process an “A.” He also highlighted the fact that it was a very convivial process with very few points of contention.
Video of the event is available on BroadbandBreakfast.com at the following link.
Others on the panel were less generous. Jacquie Jones, Executive Director, National Black Programming Consortium, gave it a “B.” Craig Settles, a leading industry analyst, gave it an “A-“ and a “C”, and Lori Sherwood of the Inter-County Broadband Network, expressed a number of reservations. Watch the video below for the distinctions drawn.
Settles, for example, praised the NTIA and RUS, but said that some of their decisions on awards were unexpected.
Among the criticisms, Jacquie was disappointed by the lack of innovative projects. While the NTIA had to be careful and fund projects which would work, she felt that they should have tried to support some new project types. Settles reiterated this sentiment by pointing out that the majority of the projects for last mile were for fiber which is a proven technology; however, Settles also liked the fact that WiMax was given funding.
The panelists also felt that the level of digital literacy needed to be improved. Currently, the broadband stimulus legislation and implementing regulation seeks to teach only the true basics. That won’t be sufficient to create economic growth, Jones said. She highlighted a project in Philadelphia which taught teenagers how to create and share media via the web. This project helped the teens to develop useful job skills along with basic digital literacy.
Sherwood’s Inter-County Broadband Network is a partnership with Maryland governments to obtain a BTOP grant that will connect schools, community centers, and government offices. Although she had praise for the program, she also noted the lack of flexibility when dealing with government applicants. Sherwood said her group did not obtain a first round grant because they were unable to provide the same financial balance sheets as corporate and nonprofit entities.
With all the investment in private networks, the need for publicly owned networks was questioned; but both Benton and Sherwood supported the need. Benton stated that public networks are necessary since they are able to provide access in areas where a market case cannot be made; additionally they provide a high level of long term cost savings for the governments which do not have to rent bandwidth.
Now that all the money has been distributed, the issue of what happens next was posed to the panel. Most agreed that the Universal Service Fund is the next funding mechanism.
Settles also highlighted the Google Fiber project which galvanized thousands of communities across the nation. He said that many of the communities which he worked with in the preparation of bids for the Google project have realized the value of the high speed network and are preparing alternative funding sources if they do not obtain the Google funds.
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