Evaluating BTOP - A Step in the Right Direction

By Charles Benton

It's not that often that we have the opportunity to relish the fruits of our labor, so please indulge me just this once. On Thursday, July 30th, the federal government indicated it's in the market for a rigorous examination of its investment in broadband. A Request for Quote was issued for an evaluation study of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's (NTIA) Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). Benton and our allies in academia and the public interest sector have been encouraging the NTIA and other agencies to evaluate our investment in broadband networks for some time now.

There are some fundamental reasons why we believe in research in relation to government investment. As you may know, BTOP is part of the government stimulus package that was passed in February 2009, as is the Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP), administered by the Department of Agriculture. About a third of that $887 billion package was for tax breaks, another third in support of state expenditures, especially for teachers, first responders, etc. and finally 1/3 for longer term investments, especially improving the nation's infrastructure. On these latter investments, the public should be concerned not only about the immediate effects on jobs and the economy, but longer term impacts as well. Without having research to ascertain what is working, what is not working, and why, how can we learn any lessons from these broadband investments that might help guide future action?

Benton board member Joanne Hovis of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) says, "To its credit, NTIA has committed not only to fund good, replicable projects, but also to study and disseminate information about now these projects fare and how to replicate the best of them. In this way, the nation's investment in BTOP is likely to have additional, long-term returns in the form of future projects that will learn from the results of this study."

The Obama Administration understands that if our goal is indeed broadband for everyone or "Universal Broadband," then government investments in reaching unserved and underserved populations are essential. The private sector alone will not and cannot do the job. Market forces alone are insufficient.

When the government does decide to invest in model programs and pilot projects, which is the case with the approximately 250 grants overall that will be made under BTOP (approximately 150 for infrastructure and 50 each for public computer centers and sustainable broadband), then only through research will we really understand which projects are meeting or exceeding their goals.

Understanding what works and having the courage to invest in it is, I believe, very much at the heart of the American entrepreneurial free enterprise system. I also believe that all the sectors...government, business, and non-for-profit...must work together with each making its unique contribution toward the common good. If we are to make decisions rationally based on facts/evidence and fair arguments, then research is the key methodological tool to understand and create new realities on the ground.

By Charles Benton.