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December 18, 2009 10:29 AM

An Early Christmas And A Good Start For The Stimulus

Yesterday NTIA and RUS announced the first awardees in the first round of the broadband stimulus.

I have to admit, I was starting to wonder if they were going to be able to actually get anything announced before the end of the year, especially with the holidays right around the corner, but NTIA/RUS delivered and now 18 projects across 17 states get to enjoy an early and very merry Christmas.

I also should point out the obvious that I had some severe reservations about the direction the stimulus was heading, but after this first set of winners I'm feeling more confident that despite the bumpy road to get here that ultimately the broadband stimulus is going to be a big win.

The majority of the awardees sound like solid projects. They all seem to represent coalitions of local stakeholders, which is vitally important to the future success of a network regardless of if its a public or private entity doing the deploying. For the most part, they all seem to be part of coordinated, forward-looking plans. And there weren't any obviously egregious choices made. All of this leaves me much more optimistic for how the rest of this process will go.

That said, that doesn't mean I'm without reservations.

The first I want to point out is the bizarrely opaque way they released the full list of winners. In following my Twitter stream I know I was not alone in having trouble finding a full list of all the winners yesterdays. Most news articles only cited a handful. And yet it appears as though the White House released a full list on Wednesday to reporters. But for some reason that list didn't get distributed that widely. There wasn't even a link to it on BroadbandUSA.gov yesterday, though I just checked and that's changed today. This is a very minor quibble, but I still think it's important to point out as I'd think NTIA/RUS would want everyone to be able to easily access their progress so they can show the world they're on the right track. Moving forward, they may want to think about doing more to make sure this information's accessible right away when they announce the next winners. (Here's that list, by the way.)

My next concern might be a bit more serious, namely one of the major projects seems to primarily involve the deployment of a 4G network with satellite backhaul in Alaska. What worries me is whether or not satellite backhaul will be sufficiently capacious, especially in terms of supporting the potential capacity of 4G wireless. I'd hate to see a robust 4G network be put in place that ends up bottlenecked because of the limited capacity of satellite. I also wonder if these 4G networks will be able to support real-time applications like VoIP or videocalling because of the latency that's inherent to satellite transport. It may be that satellite backhaul was the best or only option in this part of rural Alaska, but I can't help but be concerned that while this network may be great for short-term needs, in the long-term it won't be sufficient.

Another thought I had was wondering if some states are going to get gypped. What I mean by this is I get the sense that NTIA/RUS are focusing first on making sure every state gets their one project and then doling out whatever money's left in the first round to other meritorious projects. What I wonder is what this might mean for somewhere like my home state of Minnesota. They were included in this first batch, receiving a $2.9 million public computing center grant. But does this mean they won't necessarily get an infrastructure grant or loan in the first round? I don't know if they're going to try and split the money evenly between the states, and I actually don't think they necessarily should, but I'd hate to see a state like Minnesota that I know has a number of worthwhile infrastructure projects miss out because someone else in the state got money for computers.

The final disappointment for me in this first round is the general lack of imagination when it comes to the adoption and public computing center projects that are getting funds. They seem to be largely of the "buy computers and teach people how to use them" variety. Now, I'd admit that it's hard to criticize this. For one, the executive summaries likely don't capture the full scope of projects so some of these might be more innovative under the surface. And I can also respect NTIA's probable desire to make sure their money's spent on proven projects they know will work vs. something that's new and might not. But I think we'd be remiss if we didn't use the stimulus as an opportunity to fund some out-of-the-box ideas because we may never get the opportunity to experiment and learn lessons on this scale again. Of course, this may also reflect a lack of imagination across the applicants, but either way I hope we see some more innovative ideas in these areas getting funded as we move through the rest of the first and into the second rounds of awards.

All in all, I'm relatively happy. While I'd love to see more full fiber projects get funded, those could still be coming, plus it was reassuring to see how the majority of the infrastructure projects were focused on fiber in one way or another. So I say kudos to NTIA and RUS! The process to get us here has been much maligned, but in the end all that matters is that the right projects get funded.

Moving forward, I'm going to be spending more time diving into the winners over the coming weeks to try and discern what are the common characteristics NTIA and RUS are looking for. I'm also going to continue exploring if we're administering the stimulus right and if there are any ways we can be doing it better.

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