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Notes from March 16, 2009, Meeting on Broadband Initiatives in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009

This was the second in a series of six workshops that are being held by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) to solicit input from interested parties on how to structure the broadband grant programs related to the ARRA. It focused on three main subject areas: private-sector eligibility; coordination between NTIA and RUS on the broadband initiatives, and innovative approaches to encouraging sustainable adoption of broadband services and expanding public computer center capacity. The format for this workshop was panel discussion followed by public comments and questions. All future workshops will follow the same format.

The purpose of these workshops is to gather input. While many suggestions and opinions are shared, no policy decisions or program specifics are revealed at the meetings. The meetings are designed to help NTIA and RUS structure their grant and loan programs.

Private-Sector Eligibility. Private-sector companies are already eligible for RUS grants and loans. The ARRA allows NTIA grants to be given to a state or political subdivision, a nonprofit, or "any other entity, including a broadband service provider, that the assistant secretary finds by rule to be in the public interest." There was considerable discussion on what the public-interest test should be, and how it should be applied to private-sector companies. The private-sector panel seemed to agree that private-sector companies should be allowed to apply for the NTIA grants, although there was considerable discussion on what kind of oversight would be required to make sure program goals are met. There was also panel discussion on the need for public-private partnerships throughout the process.

Coordination between NTIA and RUS on Broadband Initiatives. Panelist discussed the strong need for coordination, not just among the two agencies, but also including the states, which have a strong role to play. There was much discussion on the roles of the states, including which state agencies should be involved (for instance, public utilities/service commissions versus state broadband authorities). Some panelists felt strongly that while the states should be involved, they should not have veto authority over any projects. There were no statements made that indicated a desire for less coordination by any entity. Preference was stated for the RUS investments being grant-based rather than loan-based. Requests were made that the applications process for both agencies be standardized as much as possible. Requests were made that the agencies fund projects that provide adequate broadband speeds for future application scalability and try to avoid small bandwidth fixes. There were numerous requests for flexibility in the grant-making process.

Innovation and Sustainability. A main theme with this panel was that the agencies must understand the flexibility of some applicants and the varying need of technological solutions for rural broadband.  Accounting and reporting processes should be standardized for both agencies. There was a reported need for more bandwidth for public libraries and community college/educational uses, as these entities provide workforce training and continuing education throughout the rural areas of the country. There was considerable discussion about projects that will help sustain businesses and create jobs in communities. There were comments on the need to support human resource service outreach into communities.

In discussions of telehealth/telemedicine, there were comments on the need for projects that support health information technology to be broad enough to include mobile monitoring projects, emergency room needs, and other community health applications. There was also discussion on innovation for the electric industry using broadband solutions. Affordability issues were also discussed, particularly issues dealing with low- and moderate-income residents and residents in public housing.

Throughout the day, emphasis was give to the need to develop both traditional and nontraditional partnerships for project development and deployment issues and discussion of the public benefit There was discussion on the importance of paying particular attention to unserved areas.

The next three sessions (March 17, March 18, and March 19) will address issues dealing with serving vulnerable populations, defining unserved and underserved communities as well as and broadband requirements, and grant selection criteria. The meeting on March 23 will discuss nondiscrimination and interconnection obligations, the role of the states, and broadband mapping. The meeting on March 24 will address compliance and oversight, selection criteria, and community economic development.