ARLINGTON, Va., May 25, 2012 – The new national wireless communications network to serve police, firefighters and other “first responders” may provide a new opportunity to extend broadband stimulus-related activity, a top Commerce Department official said Wednesday.
Dubbed FirstNet, this new public safety wireless network was mandated in February by Congress. Lawmakers allocated up to $7 billion that will be dispensed to state entities under the coordination of a new, independent organization at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
States should act fast to develop plans to utilize funding, said Assistant Secretary of Commerce Larry Strickling, who administers the NTIA. “One of the issues [in FirstNet] is how does coverage from this network get into rural areas?”
Strickling said that the new network provided the opportunity for public safety officials, particularly in rural areas that are unserved or underserved by broadband, to help bring high-speed internet connectivity to more remote parts of the country.
“In addition to reform of the Universal Service Fund of the Federal Communications Commission, and [additional funding from] the Rural Utilities Service, [FirstNet] is another tool in our toolkit” to ensure the continued viability of broadband stimulus-funded projects, said Strickling.
Strickling was the keynote speaker at a conference here co-hosted by the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition and his agency. The conference brought together broadband experts together with awardees from stimulus projects, including telecommunications infrastructure projects, mapping projects and projects designed to promote widespread computer adoption and digital literacy.
One focus of the conference was the issue of sustainability: NTIA-funded broadband infrastructure and adoption projects will come to an end by next year. Some stimulus awardees – including projects of interest to schools, hospitals and libraries – are concerned about their future viability.
Under the legislation passed by Congress, FirstNet funding will be dispensed by the NTIA. A governing board for the new entity is still in formation, and rules for the dispensing of the $7 billion by NTIA are currently under consideration, but must be in place by late August 2012.
Because of the landmark nature of the FirstNet legislation in February 2012, Strickling said that NTIA took the unusual act of suspending seven previously-awarded public safety-related grants under its Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program. Those programs totaled $382 million.
“The new legislation in February [changed] the assumption on which we are going to move forward,” he said, referring to a more decentralized series of public safety networks that had been the working assumption prior to February 2012.
“We really need to take the time and pause now” to consider how public safety broadband dollars should be spent, he said. “It is not my money, or your money, it is the taxpayer’s money, and we want it to be used in a way that the project, as it is built, will get incorporated into the FirstNet network.”
Those seven public safety projects will be granted extension on the time to finish their projects – although he insisted that no other awardees would be granted extensions. “Keep pushing on your projects,” he said.
Strickling’s agency was responsible for dispensing the lion’s share of the $7 billion broadband stimulus funds mandated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Additional funding under the Recovery Act was dispensed by Rural Utilities Service of the Department of Agriculture.
Keynoting the conference on Thursday was RUS Administrator Jonathan Adelstein, who praised broadband stimulus awardees as “the best and the brightest” in building broadband in rural areas.
“We know you can complete it to the end. We are counting on you, and your communities are counting on your success,” said Adelstein.
Referring to role of broadband programs within the USDA, Adelstein said, “We are betting the farm on broadband – and it is a safe bet.”