Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Rocky Start for Obama's Broadband Push

On Mar. 10, Dan Spatz joined hundreds of other people who crammed into a 500-seat auditorium at the Commerce Dept. building in Washington, D.C. The crowd of executives, entrepreneurs, and local officials had gathered for the first public hearing about how the federal government plans to distribute $7.2 billion in grants and loans to improve broadband Internet access in the U.S.

Spatz, a city official from The Dalles, Ore., took the microphone to ask a relatively simple question: How would the government determine which regions in the country are "unserved," a critical definition because those areas without broadband service are supposed to take priority under the legislation passed by Congress.

"The short answer is we've not made a decision," said Mark Seifert, a senior adviser at the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA), one of two government agencies responsible for doling out the broadband money. "We have reached out and asked you and folks like yourself… to tell us how we should. We're waiting for you to help us get to those definitions."
No Hard Answers

And so it went again and again. At the first public discussion of the Obama Administration's much heralded broadband plan, government officials offered virtually no hard answers to the hundreds of people who gathered in person and the 2,500 more who participated via live Web video. For almost every substantive question about how the billions will be allocated, officials said they're looking for guidance from the public. Bernadette McGuire-Rivera, NTIA associate administrator, said the government is seeking input on "nearly every facet of the program."

The lack of answers proved frustrating for some participants. Charlie Mattingly, chief executive of a small Internet service provider in Texas called Broadband Rural, was taken aback that the meeting wasn't more productive. "I had no idea how full of themselves they are in Washington," he said. "If we had half the money that the government spent to put on this meeting today and half of the money that people spent to attend it, we could have put 1,000 people online," he said.

One reason for the frustration is that time is short. When Congress passed its massive stimulus bill, it mandated that the NTIA cut the first round of checks for broadband buildouts between April and June. With no clear criteria for how the money will be allocated, companies from Broadband Rural to AT&T (T) and Verizon Communications (VZ) are all struggling with whether to apply for the grants and, if so, how best to make their applications. The NTIA will distribute $4.7 billion of the broadband money, in three different rounds, while the U.S. Agriculture Dept.'s Rural Utility Service will hand out another $2.5 billion.
U.S. Ranked 17th in Broadband Access

Officials who led the meeting agree that the need for better technology is urgent. "Too few consumers and small businesses in this country have the high-speed broadband they need if they're going to succeed," said Michael Copps, acting chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. "We pay too much for service that is too slow. It's holding us back as individuals, it has cost our economy billions, and things are only going to get worse if we don't do something about it."

The latest indicator of how the U.S. compares to other countries in terms of broadband availability came Mar. 2 from the U.N.'s International Telecommunication Union. The group ranked the U.S. 17th out of 154 countries surveyed, in part because of low rates of access to broadband.