Do Delays Really Hurt Stimulus Funding?

11:05 AM -- The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is now three months behind in distributing its portion of the federal stimulus money, about $4.7 billion in grants, according to a recent report from the General Accounting Office. (See Recovery Act: $182M Awarded for Broadband.)

This is hardly the first, or second, or third delay in the process of distributing federal dollars to support broadband deployment in unserved and underserved areas. Every step of the process -- from releasing the rules and guidelines for distributing the money to accepting automated grant applications and now to picking the winners -- has been plagued by missteps that have led to delays. (See The Broadband Stimulus Package Is Broken.)

But most of the problems only speak to how ambitious this process has been from the outset and to what were probably unrealistic expectations. However much we all want to compare broadband networks to utilities or to commodities such as highways, there are numerous issues that make it harder to spent federal dollars quickly on high-speed Internet than on building new roads.

One reason for haste was the hope that broadband stimulus funding would also be an economic boon, helping to create jobs and stimulate local economies, in addition to bringing broadband where it is badly needed. For many reasons, the Obama administration wanted that to happen sooner rather than later.

Broadband access, unfortunately, comes politically loaded. Just look at the brouhaha in Maine, where the University of Maine was part of a public/private partnership that won a $25.4 million federal grant to build an 1,100-mile fiber optic network through the northern, western, and eastern areas of the state. By providing this “middle mile” network, the Great Works Internet company and two private investors intend to enable more broadband access at the local level.

Maine incumbent FairPoint Communications Inc. isn’t happy that the university is involved, and neither, apparently, are some state residents, who think their tuition dollars are being misused. Despite assurances from the university that it is acting in a minor advisory role, opponents have gotten two separate pieces of legislation introduced to keep the university out of the broadband business.

So even when the federal government does get its act together, delays seem inevitable. The smart thing right now is for this process to continue to play out, and the focus to remain on getting the right projects in place, so that the stimulus funding has the lasting and sustainable impact on getting broadband to the places that need it. In many areas, there is little likelihood of major network construction until spring, anyway. If we can’t do this quickly, let’s at least get it right.

— Carol Wilson, Chief Editor, Events, Light Reading

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