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March 18, 2009 11:39 AM

What Private Entities Should Qualify for Stimulus Dollars? It's Easy.

One hot topic in discussions over how broadband stimulus dollars should be allocated is what private entities should qualify for a waiver on the restrictions that only public entities and public/private partnerships can get the money.

But to be honest, I'm not sure why this is a difficult question to answer.

First off, it's obvious that Congress wants us to prioritize public entities and public/private partnerships, otherwise they wouldn't have put the need for a waiver in. So to me that means that when applications come in those from public entities and public/private partnerships should go to the front of the line.

So now we've narrowed the scope to only discussing whatever money is left over after all the qualified and viable public and public/private projects are funded.

Assuming there are funds left over, then I think determining which private-only projects deserve funding could be done easily simply by saying that in order to qualify private-only projects must have the support of the communities in which they're going to build.

The only thing to determine now is how to quantify that local support. It could be that whatever local government votes in favor of it, or there could be a petition for the public to sign, or there could be some rules associated with making sure the major stakeholders in town are supportive of the project (like medical facilities, schools, businesses, etc.), or some mix of these different elements.

But rather than us try to make top-down rules about who should and shouldn't be eligible, let's leave the decision-making up to the communities that are going to be getting, using, and benefiting from these networks.

The only other variable in this is where the line between public/private partnerships and private-only projects with lots of committed public support should be drawn.

While "public/private partnerships" seems to suggest some direct government involvement in the project, I'm not sure that necessarily has to be the case. For example if all the medical facilities and practitioners, all the schools, and all the public safety personnel in a region are supportive of a private-only project and want to buy service once the network's built, that's starting to feel like a partnership to me. That's suggesting that the private entity has done the leg work to make sure that their networks are delivering what their prospective customers desire, that they're not imposing a network on a community but that they're delivering what the communities wants and needs.

Ultimately I think that this was the primary intent of these waivers: not to say that private companies can't play ball but that Congress wanted to insure local interests were protected in this process. In other words, no one wants to see money going to a private-only project where that private provider is imposing themselves on a community without local buy-in.

So what this all leads to is if you're a private-only project you should have to prove local buy-in to your project to qualify, but if you can prove that the communities you want to deploy to are satisfied with the network you're building and are on-board with your project then you should qualify outright as a public/private partnership. Otherwise go to the back of the line and wait your turn to see if there's any money left once all the viable projects that have local buy-in are funded and moving forward.

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