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Notes from March 17, 18, and 19, 2009, Meetings on Broadband Initiatives in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009

Workshops were held on March 17 in Las Vegas, Nevada; on March 18 in Flagstaff, Arizona; and on March 19 in Washington, D.C. All had the same agenda and the same format—panel discussion followed by public comments and questions. The workshops concentrated on the definitions of broadband and underserved areas, and on reaching vulnerable populations and rural and unserved areas.

The first panel discussed the definition of broadband. The main themes that emerged were the need for all agencies to be flexible in their definition of broadband, to remain technology neutral, and to recognize that a "one-size-fits-all" approach will not work. There was significant discussion on the affordability of broadband and access to services. Of particular note was the fact that approximately half of the panel favored using a minimum speed requirement to define broadband. Of the other panelists, some favored a market-based approach while others said there already was and is a market failure because business-case economic decisions do not always work in rural areas. Public comments after the panel discussion clearly focused on the need for a minimum speed threshold to be used in establishing the definition of broadband. Also raised was the concern over the need for improved cellular and mobile technology in rural areas. There was also discussion on the high cost of middle-mile backhaul facilities for rural areas. Some rural providers said backhaul was a significant cost in providing rural service.

The second panel addressed underserved areas and vulnerable populations. An interesting concept that emerged from this discussion was the use of broadband speeds to designate underserved or unserved areas. For example, if DSL service is available throughout an entire area but the speeds fall below a minimum threshold, the area would be considered underserved, or even unserved if the speeds were low enough. The panel also discussed affordability and the fact that low- and moderate-income households should be included in the definition of vulnerable populations. This could include households in public housing projects in urban areas as well as those in geographically challenged rural areas, and disabled individuals, including those who are sight and hearing impaired. Public comments after the panel discussion centered around affordability and access.

The third panel discussed rural and unserved areas. There was considerable discussion on how "rural" should be defined and on the need for affordable service in rural areas. Also discussed was the need to upgrade rural networks and to improve access to services. Panelists said that applications drive the need for increased speeds and overall network improvement, and the agencies should anticipate the greater bandwidth requirements needed for robust applications in the future. Public comments after the panel discussion included statements that the private sector has failed to supply adequate services in rural areas, and on the need for open-access networks.

The March 23 workshop will address nondiscrimination and interconnection obligations, the role of the states, and broadband mapping. The March 24 workshop will address post-award compliance and oversight, the grant selection criteria, and community economic development.