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June 18, 2009 1:11 PM

Four Months And Counting... Still No Broadband Stimulated

Just dawned on me that yesterday was the four-month anniversary of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act becoming law. Four months since over $7 billion was set aside to "stimulate" the deployment of broadband.

Yet this has really been a "stimulus" in name only as to date not a single dollar has been turned into deployment. Zero, zilch, nada.

Some have rightly argued that the "stimulus" has stimulated interest among communities in formulating plans to get themselves wired. But I've heard just as many stories about projects that are frozen waiting on the hope that they might get their hands on some of that free government money.

I am optimistic that we're further along as a country in terms of getting serious about getting wired now than we were six months ago, but I can't hide my frustration over the pace at which government is moving to turn dollars into deployment.

It sometimes feels like we're conducting broadband policy through a dialup modem and there's just too much data and decisions to get through it in a timely manner.

I don't necessarily blame the hard-working folks at NTIA and RUS as they've got to be overwhelmed given the task in front of them and the resources at their disposal. And I certainly don't envy them as it seems likely that they're going to be beat up no matter who they decide to give the money to since there will be many more who don't get any.

But that doesn't mean this process can't be sped up.

I completely respect the need to be careful in spending this money to make sure we don't invite waste, fraud, and abuse into the system, but off the top of my head I could name a dozen worthwhile projects that could be making use of these funds today.

They could be turning dollars into deployment at this very moment, getting unserved communities connected, finding new ways to encourage demand and adoption, and, most importantly, creating jobs.

These are all people that are proven and projects that are truly shovel-ready. So what are we waiting for? Are we really saying that avoiding waste, fraud, and abuse is more important than stimulating broadband deployment and supporting the economic recovery?

Another idea I've been discussing is that of establishing a fast-track partial loan guarantee program at RUS that could free up private capital to get people deploying sooner rather than later. And I'm sure there are more good ideas out there for how to do this better.

What's really driving me crazy is that we don't know any more today about how this money's going to be spent then we did four months ago. I know people are working hard behind the scenes, but we've seen none of the fruits of that labor. And despite a brief flurry of public engagement a few months ago, there's been no obvious way to help influence the process as everything's happening behind closed doors.

Again, I'm not trying to point fingers, but I can't help but feel flabbergasted at how all this is playing out. And, quite frankly, I'm not sure why more people aren't upset.

We as an industry seem to have begrudgingly accepted the way things are going as our fate, believing that this is the best we can hope government to do.

The thing is I think most of the people who normally would be complaining are either looking for money of their own and therefore don't want to upset anyone, or are more worried about the money being spent poorly than on when the money's spent.

And these are both valid concerns, especially the latter as even if these government agencies have the best of intentions they're still likely going to make some mistakes.

But for now I simply wanted to point out that four months have been wasted since the stimulus passed, four months during which thousands of homes could've been getting connected and thousands of people could've been getting hired into new jobs. And other than an uptick in interest among communities that see this pool of money as their opportunity to get wired, we still have not seen any broadband "stimulated" by this "stimulus."

The worst part is the way things are currently set to line up, I'm going to be writing the same thing four months from now, still lamenting the lack of dollars turning into a deployment.

Could there be a better way to do this, to get money out more quickly while still being responsible about it and maximizing its effectiveness? I say, "Yes!" All we have to do is open our minds to new ways of doing business.

Will we embrace these new ways of doing business so we can get about stimulating broadband to a greater degree in a shorter timeframe? That, my friends, remains to be seen.

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