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ARRA Broadband Grant Programs

Broadband Stimulus Funding and The National Broadband Plan



Image Courtesy recovery.org

The importance of broadband was underscored when President Obama signed the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the Stimulus Act in 2009. $7.2 billion was allocated to projects to make broadband available to areas where it currently was not, and in places where broadband adoption rates were low. This infusion of federal funds was the most significant one-time investment to date in broadband.

Broadband Stimulus Grant Program Highlights:
  • $7.2 billion available for broadband in total
  • $4.7 billion from National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)for Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) categories: infrastructure, sustainable broadband adoption and public computer centers
  • $2.5 billion available from United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for Rural Utilities Service (RUS) grants and loans for rural unserved and underserved areas
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.

Broadband has Become a Necessity -- Essential as Electricity and Phone Service

Some say broadband has become as necessary as electricity and telephone service. Efforts are underway in many states to provide "life-line" broadband service to citizens who are unable to afford broadband service. As more and more Americans are connected to broadband, new and innovative broadband applications will continue to evolve, and competition among broadband service providers and application developers will increase.

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