Eleven individuals were honored as “Champions of Change” during a White House panel discussion in February, 2012 for their efforts to implement innovative government projects using broadband stimulus grant funding as a way to improve national infrastructure. Joe Freddoso, President and CEO of MCNC, and Donald Welch, President and CEO of Merit Network Inc, were among 11 local leaders honored at the White House as “Champions of Change” who are using innovative techniques to develop valuable projects helping to improve America’s infrastructure.
Merit Network and MCNC both received ARRA Broadband Grants from NTIA for broadband infrastructure projects that are currently underway and connecting community anchor institutions, including schools, libraries, and hospitals, to high-speed Internet. Under the leadership of Welch and Freddoso, Merit and MCNC have put hundreds of people to work and are laying the groundwork for sustainable economic growth and improved education, healthcare, and public safety. These projects emanated from the communities where they are being carried out; each project is designed to best meet the needs of local people and institutions and to get the biggest bang for every grant dollar. Merit’s project is serving Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsula, and MCNC is serving communities across North Carolina.How Are ARRA Broadband Grant Recipients Doing? Significant Progress Noted A Year Later
MCNC and Merit Network — both nonprofit organizations that develop networking technologies — each received stimulus funding from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for their projects. Each project is currently under way to connect community anchor institutions like schools, libraries and hospitals to high-speed Internet, according to the NTIA.
Merit Network’s project, which received two grants from the NTIA, serves Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsula, and the MCNC’s Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program (BTOP) project serves various communities across North Carolina.
According to the MCNC, BTOP is intended to use $144 million of stimulus money to expand the North Carolina Research and Education Network, which will be completed by 2013. Merit Network’s REACH-3MC (which is short for Michigan Middle Mile Collaborative) projects will build more than 2,200 miles of network infrastructure, improving broadband service availability in Michigan.
During the panel, Merit Network’s Welch said institutions such as schools face challenges due to decreased resources, so it’s important that communities have strong broadband networks, and through strong partnerships, communities can get the additional infrastructure they need for broadband.
Freddoso said his organization’s broadband project will install 2,600 miles of fiber once completed. Because fiber is being installed every day, job opportunities were made available as a result.
President Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act broadband stimulus funding provided over $7.2 billion in funding for broadband projects around the country.
Broadband Stimulus Grant Programs Favor Rural Areas
The emphasis on providing broadband coverage for rural areas was obvious in the grant eligibility and selection criteria. The entire RUS program was devoted solely to unserved and underserved rural areas. The BTOP requirements were written so rural and urban areas would both be eligible for funding. However, due to the lack of validated adoption rate studies, and the emphasis on providing coverage to unserved and underserved areas, rural areas were favored to receive funding.Urban Areas Eligible for Funding on a Smaller Scale
Most large cities and other urban areas were left out, unless they could demonstrate that their projects were not overbuilds (one provider building a network in a service area which is already served by another), or were needed to address lower adoption rates (at least 40%). The legislation required each state to receive at least one grant, but there were no requirements prescribing the amount of funding each state could receive.Different Solutions Required for Urban Areas
The reasons for this urban exclusion are varied. Most urban areas are already served by at least one broadband provider, and the grant criteria did not permit overbuilds, and allowed other providers to challenge applications if they provided overlapping coverage. In addition, the most significant broadband problems facing urban areas is low adoption rates due to affordability, lack of access to computer equipment, low digital literacy rates, and the perception that broadband is not needed. Although there were programs targeted in the BTOP designed to address these very issues, most of the funding was for building infrastructure to address gaps in the availability of broadband.National Broadband Plan
Another deliverable of the ARRA legislation was the National Broadband Plan. This document, written by the FCC, outlined the strategy for using broadband in almost every national initiative, and outlined a strategy for increasing adoption rates and providing broadband to all Americans. The National Broadband Plan, also titled The Omnibus Broadband Initiative (OBI), is a comprehensive document encompassing almost four-hundred pages. The plan lays out a 10 year strategic vision to address:
- Consumer Welfare - ensure competition in residential broadband markets
- Civic Participation - use social media to engage citizens
- Public Safety and Homeland Security - create a nationwide interoperable public safety wireless broadband communications network
- Community Development - emphasize broadband access and adoption on the local level
- Health Care Delivery - encourage the use of electronic medical records
- Energy Independence and Efficiency - utilize SmartGrid technology for real-time energy usage monitoring
- Education - improve access to online instruction and teacher/student communications
- Employee Training - improve access to broadband for job seekers to promote job growth
- Private Sector Investment - drive innovation through competition
- Entrepreneurial Activity, Job Creation and Economic Growth - Encourage investment in broadband by stimulating economic development
Future of Broadband in the United States
The $7.2 Billion in the broadband stimulus grant programs have often been described as a "down payment" on our National Broadband Initiative. As the strategies outlined in the FCC's National Broadband Plan evolve, and the various rules and legislation to achieve these goals are enacted more funding will be needed for the broadband initiative. By developing the first ever "National Broadband Plan," networks will not continue to be developed in patchwork design mode. Interoperable networks will be created, so public safety first responders can communicate with one another. Gaps in broadband coverage can be bridged by the appropriate technology, so all Americans can receive high speed internet no matter where they live. Finally, educational programs and public service announcements will fill the void in perception that broadband has little value in one's life, and the digital divide will unite those who are adept at navigating the Internet and using computer equipment with those that lack those skills.