June 14, 2009 By Andy Opsahl
If two congressmen get their way, the awarding of stimulus money for broadband projects would be contingent upon completion of broadband mapping. U.S. Reps. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., and Joe Barton, R-Texas, recently suggested that only local governments in states with completed maps of broadband coverage should receive stimulus money for such projects.
The congressmen argue that coverage maps would ensure the stimulus money included in the Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 goes to areas that are actually lacking broadband. Stearns and Barton are asking the two federal agencies responsible for disbursing broadband stimulus funds to require coverage maps before distributing the money.
"The likelihood of waste, fraud and abuse increases if you act before having the benefit of this information," Stearns and Barton wrote in a letter to the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (RUS), the two agencies distributing federal stimulus money for broadband. The FCC also received the letter.
"Prioritizing funding for projects in states where mapping is complete will also help ensure requests are well thought out and provide a valuable incentive to complete maps in the remaining states as thoroughly and quickly as possible," the congressmen wrote.
They reasoned that since the money is being allocated in three funding windows -- the last window is in June 2010 -- states without broadband maps would have time to produce them before the stimulus money is completely spent. In the meantime, local governments in states with broadband maps should get money first, Stearns and Barton wrote.
The NTIA has access to a $350 million pot that's largely intended to create a national broadband map. The agency will announce its time frame and strategy for that map when it releases the application requirements in June or July, according to Mark Tolbert, a spokesman of the NTIA. But it raises a question: What purpose will that map serve if it plays no role in ensuring stimulus money goes to areas that are truly lacking broadband?
Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps indicated a possible answer in a responding letter to Stearns and Barton. He said the information would be valuable for future broadband efforts that aren't related to the stimulus.
"I do not expect that Recovery Act funds will be able to bring broadband to all corners of the country (that is why a national broadband plan is so important)," Copps wrote, noting that the NTIA would decide whether or not maps would be required for governments to get stimulus money intended for broadband.
The NTIA's public comment period on requirements for the broadband stimulus money ended in April. The organization expects to know whether or not it will require maps by the end of June, according to Bart Forbes, spokesman for the NTIA.
A nonprofit called Connected Nation, widely viewed as having the top broadband mapping expertise in the country, would likely do that mapping for states. Connected Nation has already done broadband maps for Kentucky, West Virginia, Minnesota, Ohio and other states.
Phillip Brown, the national policy director for Connected Nation, said most states, if not all of them, could complete maps before the funding runs out if they moved quickly enough.
"It is possible to create a broadband map fairly rapidly. The maps that we recently finished for Minnesota as part of the Connect Minnesota initiative was begun and finalized within four months," Brown said.
However, some believe that Connected Nation's maps won't report enough specifics about the coverage to be useful. For example, Connected Nation's maps provide the overall average speed available in a local government, but
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