February 17, 2009 By Blake Harris
The big news over the weekend is Congress' approval of a compromise stimulus bill that includes $7.2 billion to help deploy broadband in rural and other undeserved urban areas, $17 billion for incentives for health care providers to adopt electronic health records, and $11 billion to update the nation's electricity grid by connecting it to the Internet.
The broadband portion of the bill is receiving particular attention at this point, even to the extent of being hailed in Congress as the 21st Century equivalent of government programs that brought electricity and modern highways to rural America, creating millions of jobs in the process.
"We'll lay down broadband Internet lines to connect rural schools and small businesses, so they can compete with their counterparts anywhere in the world," President Barack Obama emphasized on Friday.
The fundamental issue now is how the grant processes for that money will be set up and administered such that the money - hailed as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity - is utilized to achieve maximum benefit for a range of areas.
Indeed as the broadband initiative was being developed in both the House and the Senate, there reportedly were furious lobbying efforts behind the scenes as different interest groups and companies sought to shape this portion of the bill to their advantage. At the same time, congressional turf battles pitted rural lawmakers with urban representatives, each who wanted to ensure that their jurisdictions didn't lose out.
The compromise plan provides $4.4 billion to extend broadband and wireless services to rural, suburban and urban areas through the U.S. Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration in addition to $2.8 billion to expand broadband access to rural areas through the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service.
Some observers question the wisdom of splitting the money into two pools to be administered by different agencies in what will almost certainly have different approaches and criteria, especially given the track record of the Agriculture Department agency in managing previous technology initiatives.
Beyond the politics of it all, however, remains the fundamental challenge: ensuing that the money is not squandered in short-sighted projects, but rather is used to bring long-term benefits to a wide range of communities - or at least, as much as that is possible in a world where technological innovation is constant.
In early versions of the bill, for instance, there were speed requirements attached to the broadband stimulus money. It would have set aggressive new benchmarks for speed and offered tax credits for achieving higher speeds.
In final versions of the bill, however, legislators opted in favor of expanded availability rather than pushing speed.
Right now, of course, most communities want to know how they might get their share of the broadband funding pie. Those details will emerge in the months ahead and Digital Communities will be covering this in some detail, both in future magazine issues and on the web site.
However, we don't want to lose sight of the bigger picture and plan to advocate for the wise use of that money. And in the upcoming issue of Digital Communities magazine -- all pretty much written before the stimulus package was approved -- we look at various proposals that were being made for enhancing broadband. Those issues remain and how they are addressed will have much to do with determining the long-term effects of the broadband stimulus.
We previously have also focused on smart grids in Digital Communities magazine and in stories on the web. Here again is an area that we will be following in the year ahead. As with anything technical, the devil is always in the details. And indeed, the capabilities of the smart grid will be determined in part by the technologies employed. But as well, tThere is the issue of how this will interface not just with existing infrastructure, but also the broadband infrastructure that is being deployed under the stimulus package. Indeed, previously, smart grids were even seen by some as the wedge to push rural broadband - the killer application that could help fund rural Wi-Fi or other wireless deployments.
So that while separate in the stimulus package, there is potentially a tie-in between these two areas.
Needless to say, all these are important IT developments for communities big and small in America and we will be following them closely in the coming year.
Photo by Mc Morr. Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic