NTIA money vs RUS money

Thanks to Ann Higgins for sending me an article about how legislators are asking the RUS to consider urban need for broadband as well as rural. I’m all for ubiquitous broadband but I have to say that I think the RUS (Rural Utility Service) money is best spent in rural areas. I would feel differently if the RUS was responsible for all of the broadband stimulus money but they aren’t.

The RUS (Rural Utility Service) has $2.5 billion to distribute and they are mandating to spend at least 75 percent in rural areas. Much of which will go to broadband loans and loan guarantees to build infrastructure. (Apparently the RUS said that they thought that all of the money would go to rural areas and that’s what spurred the letter to legislators.)

The NTIA has $4.7 billion to go for grants for programs that will include community technology centers, mapping, building broadband demand.

It seems to me as if urban areas are better served by the kind of funding provided by the NTIA. That the biggest issue in urban areas is training, affordability, access to computers and not lack of physical access to broadband.

Stimulus funding for Windom and surrounding areas?

Thanks to John Shepard for sending me an article on Windom’s plan for stimulus fudning. Actually it looks like it’s Windom, Jackson, Lakefield, Round Lake and other area communities. Folks from those communities recently met with Congressman Tim Walz to talk about the possibilities of pursuing federal funding for a fiber network.

I know that Windom has been looking at expanding fiber to surrounding communities. I know that sadly Jackson was not interested (at least with their own money). There is a city council meeting in Red Wing on Monday to discuss the option.

Blandin Broadband Stimulus Pre-Planning Meeting Notes

Yesterday’s Broadband Stimulus Pre-Planning discussion started with the following presentation on the Blandin Foundation (brief), an update on the what’s going on with the stimulus funding (what little we know) and info on Blandin’s interest in helping to draw broadband money to Minnesota.

I took dictation-type notes at the meeting – and if you want it I can send them to you. I thought the meeting went very well. It was clear that people were interested in meeting to talk about opportunities – but the meeting was more brainstorm than agenda so I thought it might be more helpful for me to try to organize and summarize what happened.

I’ll start with who was there. The group was pretty diverse and included broadband service providers and consultants, applications folks, community organizations, local government folks, people from health care and more. (If you want to get on the invitation list, one way is to join the Minnesota Broadband Coalition.

Who wasn’t there? Leadership from the State. Folks were there from various State organizations but people noted that getting support and leadership from key positions in the State would be helpful.

Several organizations mentioned an interest in funds but were either waiting to hear more or wanted to learn more. (Note for readers: no one knows that much. The criteria for funding have not been unveiled; indications are that criteria haven’t been developed yet. So if you feel as if you don’t know enough – you’re right but you’re not alone.)

Here are comments related to the funding programs:

The funds that we are talking about are for implementation – not ongoing costs. So how do we maintain and sustain any systems we put into place?

There are many buckets of money. States that can engage in a cooperation effort will look best.

NTIA traditionally gives a shorter time to compete the applications than is required. It sure seems as if there will be a benefit in getting in on the first round. The pool of applicants is only going to get larger.

Here are comments related to getting State leadership involved:

There isn’t any leadership at the State taking this on. But we need to talk to them to leverage existing and future State efforts.

Maybe the Minnesota Broadband Coalition should take folks into the Governor’s office to talk about how to be smart with prepping the ground for broadband. For example – maybe we could talk to the Governor about laying fiber when they are building roads.

U-reka Broadband is talking to MNDOT about these issues. The opportunity to collaborate is the opportunity to turn the $4.7 billion into more, sustainable funds.

The state network is the key provider to maybe people (starting with MNSCU). OET has not taken a lead but there might be an opportunity there. Adequate staffing might be an issue for them.

What projects or plans folks have in place (Note: some people mentioned their own programs, some volunteered programs of others. I didn’t distinguish between the two here.):

MNSCU is has campuses everywhere. Maybe that’s a place to start.

There is an interest in funding in the libraries. There are a lot of people without broadband and the library fills the gap. But the libraries are waiting to get the details. Even keeping libraries open longer would help.

There’s been an effort to connect libraries with City Hall with fiber – such as done in Roseville. But now we need to get clusters of communities connected. How can we capitalize on the work that’s been done? We have the expertise but not the staff that others have talked about.

SISU Health Network is working with 70+ institutes now but hoping to work with 200+. The goal is to create a tele-health network across the region. They need a private network – secure, encrypted and stable. Match funds are an issue for the various sites (regional health care, not-so-regional health care centers).

Extension Services are on the ground but they are in transition due to staff changes. They do well when the community is ready to go – but staffing is an issue (to help communities that aren’t ready). And they are waiting to hear what’s coming up.

Native Star Network from the White Earth Community wants to build a network that provides access to the community, provide training, teach people how to access broadband at home, access for healthcare.

The Greater Minnesota Telehealth Collaboration went through a process a bit like this a couple of years ago. They collaborated quickly (whoever was ready was welcome) to pursue funding. Lesson learned from healthcare – You need to pay for statewide collaboration. Funding from the top down is a better way to get people to collaborate than to fund locally and then trying to collate those funds into a sustainable network.

Advice for working together:

Referencing others’ work is a good way to demonstrate cooperation.

We need to look at everyone’s interest – the common ground is transport. If we can create a common transport – that helps. Everyone carves out a niche and doesn’t want to give ground – but collaboration would offer a bigger benefit. So maybe sharing the pipes opens us up.

We need leadership. Telecommunications connects communities. Then we can worry about how to do what we need. The biggest players (schools, hospitals, governments) need to recognize that a pipe is a pipe.

Technology isn’t the only barrier. Dealing with so many entities has set up legislative (and other seemingly arbitrary) barriers. The FCC (with previous funding) has set up a situation where sectors cannot work together – and that is closing doors for rural areas.

There’s probably 20 percent savings on everyone’s project is they collaborate.

Empowering community members is an important aspect. But it takes a strong community. Can we do a social network map that might help forecast which communities will succeed? The League of Minnesota Women Voters is another group with grassroots connection. We need to make sure that the tie is made between the tech details and the impact on community members.

Minneapolis Wireless had a community component – led by AmeriCorps workers. Maybe that can be replicated on a statewide basis. Does that fit the rule making?

Blandin is a good impartial convener – we need to get State folks to the table.

FCC starts conversation on National Policy

Last week, The Federal Communications Commission began the process of developing a national broadband plan that will seek to ensure that every American has access to broadband capability. (Mike O’Connor wrote a more timely post on the topic with some great links.)

They are looking for input from all stakeholders: consumers, industry, large and small businesses, non-profits, the disabilities community, governments at the federal, state, local and tribal levels, and all other interested parties. The Commission must deliver the plan to Congress by Feb. 17, 2010. You can get a list of information they are looking for in the Notice of Inquiry. The topics range greatly – from high level to specific. (I was going to pull out the specific questions – but the list got too long and not as helpful as reading it from the horse’s mouth.)

It’s a great opportunity to chime in!

Ars Technica mentions an earlier opportunity for community where the FCC asked for more help in terms of helping them serve the NTIA and RUS, specifically they were/are looking for:

  1. the definition of “unserved area,”
  2. the definition of “underserved area,”
  3. the definition of “broadband,”
  4. the non-discrimination obligations that will be contractual conditions of BTOP grants,
  5. the network interconnection obligations that will be contractual conditions of BTOP

I mention this because I think the earlier questions (definitions et al) will be the basis of funds distribution and scaffolding for the National Broadband Plan. So if you want to comment at the very fiber of the plans (National broadband and funds distribution) I’d look at the earlier opportunity. If you had more detailed advice, look to the more recent opportunity.

Or you could send your comments directly to the NTIA/RUS, which is what others have done – such as Blandin and Main Street Project, Institute for Local Self Reliance and others.

Stimulus Hopefuls in SE Minnesota

The Rochester Post-Bulletin wrote yesterday about three entities in Southeastern Minnesota that have expressed an interest in pursuing funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Hiawatha Broadband Communications (HBC), Goodhue County and the Southeast Minnesota Network, a consortium of nine area school districts are pursuing funding.

The funding entities (NTIA and RUS) are still working out the details and criteria for funding projects. In the article HBC CEO Gary Evans points out that one of the big issues with the criteria will be the definition of broadband. “Evans predicts there will be a “tremendous battle” waged around the question of what is broadband. Incumbent Internet providers, hoping to protect their turf, are likely to push for a loose definition, arguing that whatever it is they are providing is sufficient.”

BroadbandCensus tackled the same topic at the end of last week while recapping some of the NTIA/RUS roundtable discussions they have been having about the stimulus funding and creating opportunities for funding projects.

No definitions have been set yet – but the suggestion has been made by some that hard fast numbers are required. Without finite numbers, the claim is that we won’t be able to measure of manage success of projects. This is an interesting perspective. I’ve seen the Minnesota Task Force begin to discuss this topic – should they use a number to define broadband? Should they come up with a tiered definition? Should they tie the definition to broadband applications? Should they wait to see what the Feds come up with?

Some folks say nothing short of fiber will do. Some folks say only wireless will be affordable. Some folks feel like any improvement in some areas will be good; while others say let those unserved (and underserved) use the stimulus money to leapfrog into the future.

The devil is in the detail – but has Gary points out, the details are going to start with the definitions of broadband, unserved and underserved.

Value Statement from the Minnesota Broadband Task Force

blog_taskforceI’ve heard from a few people who plan to attend the Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force on Friday, which is great news. The more the merrier!

I’m looking forward to hearing from the health care folks on the agenda. I notice that the task force also plans to talk about their value statements – they have given me permission to share the notes from previous discussions on value statements here. It’s a work in progress.

In my opinion the discussions the task force has had on the value statements have been the most interesting conversations they have had. There are some value statements that everyone can agree to quickly – there are others that are open for greater discussion. There are 2 topics so far that have been particularly sticky:

  1. Broadband should be treated as a utility and available to every home, government entity, institution and business in the state, regardless of location, regardless of cost to bring it to the site. The Internet is used as a means, and sometimes the only means, of business, communication, and government services. Minnesota currently denies many citizens access simply on the basis of location and this Task Force needs to address that. “Almost everywhere” is not good enough.
  2. Competition (We value market competition and not sole source providers to achieve affordability and choice of services)

There are a couple of other issues that seem to be open for greater discussion but from what I’ve heard – these are the potentially hot topics.

I’ve also included the task force’s notes on their criteria for selecting broadband projects for the stimulus funding. (You can get a list of potential projects on the Urban Users’ blog.) This too was an interesting conversation last month; I think because the underlying basis for the criteria relates so directly to the value statements. (This document is also a work in progress.)

Federal Broadband Stimulus Webcast

Today, there was a webcast of federal officials discussing the broadband stimulus funding programs. The USDA, NTIA and FCC participated in this joint meeting. Over 2300 people were online viewing this meeting in real time.

The officials provided an update of program details and timing while launching the public comment period. The 90 minute program is available on demand if you would like to take in this full discussion. If you want to understand the details of the broadband stimulus legislation, I suggest that you take a look here.

Here are some of the details:

NTIA: Their goals are to: 1) Close the broadband gap; 2) Stimulate investment; 3) Create jobs; 4) Serve public entities; and 5) Increase public understanding of broadband applications. They stressed a connection to the other stimulus goals of transportation, smart grid, e-health, etc. There is a focus on the undefined terms of “unserved” and “underserved”.

NTIA has over $4 billion dollars for broadband. Of that amount, up to $350 million will be used specifically for broadband mapping (no details on how that will be done), $200 million for public computer centers; $250 million for innovative broadband projects. The balance of over $3 billion will be available for available for telecommunications infrastructure. Applicants can include state governments, other political subdivisions, non-profits and foundations. NTIA can award funds directly to private sector providers if they choose.

The timing on NTIA funding is tentative, but they anticipate three funding rounds. Their first funding announcement (NOFA – Notice of Funds Available) will be sometime between April and June, 2009, with the other cycles in the fall 2009 and spring 2010. All grants will be competitive; each state must receive one grant. Key criteria: Affordability, Speed of Service, Service for health care, education and small business.

The USDA funds are on about the same timetable. They have $2 billion dollars to allocate through loans and grants. Their priorities are rural (areas with 75% rural) without adequate broadband to support job creation. They also have a priority to increase competition by supporting projects that enable multiple providers and serve areas with high percentages of people with no access to broadband.

Both programs call for high levels of monitoring to ensure program standards. Applicants can apply to both NTIA and USDA. Collaborative projects are encouraged.

The FCC is responsible for developing a national broadband plan and they are beginning to get that organized. Their first report to Congress is due in May 2009.