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February 20, 2009 10:03 AM

Implementing the Broadband Stimulus

Following up on yesterday's post where I highlighted Blair Levin's comments about how the lack of a national broadband strategy prevented more money from the stimulus going to broadband, I wanted to share some of my impressions from the panel he shared with Jessica Rosenworcel, senior communications counsel for the Senate Commerce Committee.

First off, Blair reiterated statements he's previously made that this broadband stimulus is not the be-all-and-end-all of broadband policy; it's only an inning, not the whole game. He then set out his hopes for how these dollars will be spent, simply stating that he'd like to see the money spent quickly, tracked accurately (which is no small feat for government or for a program of this size), and that we learn something from this process that we can apply to future decisions.

I really appreciated his pragmatism in laying out these goals. It'd be nice to say that what we want is to totally resolve the plight of being unwired in rural America but that's not realistic. Instead what's needed now is a focus on spending this downpayment on our digital future wisely so that it's easier to justify additional money in the future.

Though at the same time he does expect this money to be transformative as he stated his belief that this one-time $7 billion could have a greater impact on rural America than the $7 billion+ we spend on USF year after year. In her remarks, Jessica also alluded to the momentum building behind USF reform, which suggests that we're going to take a real run at USF reform this year, and I couldn't be happier as that's a big pot of money that could be doing a lot of good supporting the deployment and adoption of broadband.

Two key thoughts from Jessica's remarks prove her understanding of the breadth of the broadband issue.

First in reviewing what's in the stimulus she made sure to stress the funds made available for generating demand for broadband, which she lamented the press hasn't picked up on enough. While it's disappointing the mainstream media hasn't done more to celebrate the inclusion of dollars for stimulating demand, it's extremely exciting to know that our policymakers understand the importance at addressing both sides of the broadband equation.

Secondly she listed off a series of other aspects of the stimulus bill that while they may not specifically say "broadband" could still be used to further the cause, in particular health IT, education, and smart energy. One of the biggest perception shifts that I've been arguing for is to not put broadband in a little box but instead consider how it can positively impact all aspects of society. So needless to say I was overjoyed when she mentioned these as it proves a new age is dawning where we think about broadband in more holistic ways.

Three other quick hit points worth mentioning:

- I asked the question of when they thought stimulus dollars would start flowing, especially given that if it takes 6 months all deployers in northern states will miss out on this year's build season, but unfortunately they couldn't give me a definite answer. Blair suggested that it'd be faster than we can expect, though I got the sense that had more to do with how slow government tends to be rather than how fast the money will actually be coming out.

- Related to a question on how these dollars might be used by carriers, Blair admitted that he expected these funds to be used more by smaller deployers, which makes perfect sense given the argument that we shouldn't expect the big guys to deploy to rural America when neither they nor Wall St want them to be there.

- One final nugget was a comment Blair made towards the end that the more leveraged the government dollars the better, in other words the more that federal money can join with state, local, and private capital the more attractive a project will be for government support. That makes all kinds of sense as we don't want to turn this into a government handout program but instead only want to be supporting those with real projects that can attract additional funding. Plus this suggests that those states that are most progressive and aggressive in supporting broadband deployment will get the most federal support. It also plays perfectly into the program I've been advocating for of fast-track partial loan guarantees, which leverage government guarantees to unleash the clogged up private capital markets.

All in all it was an inspirational session for me. With leaders like this writing broadband policy we're in really good hands. These are people who get it, who understand the need to have big goals but at the same time be pragmatic in our attempts to achieve them. So I couldn't be more excited for the opportunity to hopefully work with both of them moving forward. There's still a lot of work to be done but I'm now more positive than ever that we have what it takes to get the job done.

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