Let's Get to Work on the Purposes of the Broadband Grant Program

By Charles Benton
This blog became the basis for a Benton filing

Great news! The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act) requires the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to establish the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (B-TOP) and the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) to make grants and loans for the deployment and construction of broadband systems. The Recovery Act also makes $7.2 billion available for these programs. But now comes the hard part: how do we get these grants, loans and loans guarantees flowing so they help the economy quickly while also directing them to the people and places that need broadband improvements most?

With the quality of our telecommunications system for the 21st century at stake, Federal policymakers need to hear not just from the telecommunications industry. They need to hear from you.

The NTIA and RUS are holding a series public meetings asking for interested parties -- that means all of us -- to comment on how to run and evaluate these programs. In addition to the information received about the new programs during the public meetings, written comments will be accepted through mid-April. Information is being sought on a couple dozen questions. Staring today, and continuing over the next couple of weeks, I'd like to discuss -- not preach, but discuss -- the questions before us one at a time. I am asking that you just not read these posts, but that you respond to them as well. Because what's at this stake is more than billions of dollars. What's at stake is our telecommunications future and that is something too important to leave to someone else. Let's get to work.

Question 1: The Purposes of the NTIA Broadband Grant Program

The Recovery Act identifies five purposes for B-TOP:

1) provide access to broadband service to consumers residing in unserved areas of the United States;

2) provide improved access to broadband service to consumers residing in underserved areas of the United States;

3) provide broadband education, awareness, training, access, equipment, and support to­ --

  • schools, libraries, medical and healthcare providers, community colleges, and other institutions of higher education, and other community support organizations and entities to facilitate greater use of broadband service by or through these organizations;
  • organizations and agencies that provide outreach, access, equipment, and support services to facilitate greater use of broadband service by low-income, unemployed, aged, and otherwise vulnerable populations; and
  • job-creating strategic facilities located within a State-designated economic zone, Economic Development District designated by the Department of Commerce, Renewal Community or Empowerment Zone designated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or Enterprise Community designated by the Department of Agriculture;

4) improve access to, and use, of broadband service by public safety agencies; and

5) stimulate the demand for broadband, economic growth, and job creation.

With this in mind, the NTIA asks three questions, let's address them.

1. Should a certain percentage of grant funds be apportioned to each category?

2. Should applicants be encouraged to address more than one purpose?

3. How should the B-TOP leverage or respond to the other broadband-related portions of the Recovery Act, including the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grants and loans program as well as the portions of the Recovery Act that address smart grids, health information technology, education, and transportation infrastructure?

First, at the Benton Foundation, we take a long view: U.S. communications law did not start and does not end with the Recovery Act. U.S. communications law is historically rooted in a commitment to making the best communications networks available and affordable to all Americans. The Recovery Act recognizes that high-speed Internet access, broadband, is our future. Many people believe that affordable access to broadband in the coming years will define a person's ability to effectively participate in our society. Knowing that, we know that our shared prosperity depends on extending broadband's reach.

U.S. communications law did not start and does not end with the Recovery Act.

Estimates on bringing next-generation, high-speed Internet to everyone in the U.S. run in the range of $100 billion -- so the provisions of the Recovery Act will not get us to the promised land. The projects that NTIA and RUS fund, then, should be viewed as demonstrations of where we're headed. The Recovery Act mandates that at least one NTIA grant be awarded in each state. That's smart -- that means, potentially, that residents in each state will be able to point to a project that improved people's lives.

Since the five purposes of B-TOP encompass five goals we might include in planning our broadband future, the NTIA might ensure that there are funded demonstrations in each of these five areas. Although each purpose might not need to be funded equally, some funds might be reserved to ensure that each purpose is addressed. If no or few applicants address one or more purposes in the first round of funding, extra weight could be given to applications in these areas in subsequent funding rounds.

As for other provisions of the Recovery Act -- concerning smart grids, health, education, and transportation -- certainly some thought should be given to leveraging these broadband-related areas as well. The NTIA should not lose sight of the bigger broadband picture, a picture the Federal Communications Commission will unveil over the next year. Congress asked the FCC to draw up a national Broadband Strategy that addresses using "broadband to improve consumer welfare, civic participation, public safety and homeland security, community development, health care delivery, energy independence and efficiency, education, worker training, private sector investment, entrepreneurial activity, job creation and economic growth, and other national purposes." B-TOP grants are one critical way we can begin to demonstrate how broadband can improve Americans' lives in a host of ways.

Broadband Action Plan

The NTIA is right to ask how best to accomplish the purposes on the new B-TOP program. At Benton, we've been thinking of how best to draw both from the traditional American values enshrined in earlier communications laws and to take a long view of where we want to go. Late last year, we published An Action Plan for America: Using Technology and Innovation to Address our Nation's Critical Challenges. We'll be incorporating our findings in that report in our response to NTIA and RUS and we hope you'll draw from it, too.

Finally, without minimizing the specific purposes of B-TOP, NTIA should not lose sight of the overarching goals of the Recovery Act. The specific goals of the law are to:

  • preserve and create jobs and promote economic recovery,
  • assist those most impacted by the recession,
  • provide investments needed to increase economic efficiency by spurring technological advances in science and health,
  • invest in infrastructure that will provide long-term economic benefits, and
  • stabilize State and local government budgets, in order to minimize and avoid reductions in essential services and counterproductive state and local tax increases

In structuring the grant program, then, the NTIA should ask grantees to:

  • consider, estimate and demonstrate how many American jobs have been created and/or preserved by the project;
  • how people most impacted by the recession have been targeted for service;
  • how projects will spur technological advances in science and health;
  • how these broadband investments will provide long-term economic benefits; and
  • what impact the grants will have on State budgets, if any?

Add your comment below.

Tomorrow we'll explore the role of the States in the NTIA's broadband program.

By Charles Benton.