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.

Update on Broadband & Stimulus Packages

So I think the final word on the Stimulus package is $7 billion to broadband to un-served and under-served areas. It looks as if providing access is broadly defined as providing infrastructure, access to computers or education.

Most of that money will be managed by the NTIA and some by RUS, however, word on the street is that NTIA will seek guidance from the States – especially when it comes to determining which areas are un- or underserved. (I suspect the Connect Minnesota maps will come into play!) The goal is to award funding before the end of 2010. Federal funding for the project should not exceed 80 percent (although it looked like there may have been a loophole there.) There seems to be some skepticism about the likeliness of spending all of that money by 2010.

Tax credits, it seems, are not part of the plan. So that seems to advantage the smaller providers. I think it also indicates more accountability for funds.

A provision I especially like, the FCC is set to the task of developing a national broadband strategy. (Are they the right folks? I don’t know but the need is there!)

So what does that mean for Minnesota? I think it’s tough to say. The NTIA is required to fund at least one project in each state. So that’s good. I read on the MPR web site that the estimate of $4 billion for Minnesota from the Stimulus package does not include any broadband grants.