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DTV and Broadband Map on a Skewer With Relish

Taking what they said was a closer look at 100 more projects funded by the stimulus package–it is the second such report–Republican Senators John McCain (Ariz.) and Tom Coburn (Okla) included a DTV transition promotion project and the National Telecommunications & Information Administration’s broadband mapping programs as among the money “wasted, mismanaged, or directed towards silly and shortsighted projects.”

The report, Stimulus Checkup: A Closer Look at 100 Projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, listed as #3 the FCC’s $5.9 million contract with Young & Rubicam for outreach to “hard to reach” populations not prepared for the June 12 switch to digital.

The contract was awarded on May 5, 2009, which the report points out was only 39 days before the switch.

Among the contributing factors to the contract’s making the list was the fact that it only created three jobs in service of “a poorly managed transition to digital,” suggested the report. It went on to say the delay benefited big telcos.

“For some time, Americans had been told by both government and television networks that the DTV switch would occur on February 18, 2009, only to see it pushed back to June, just one week before the deadline. Twenty-three Concerns were raised that up to 20 million people were not quite ready for the transition, while large telecommunications firms such as Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable saw a delay as an opportunity to generate new―pay-TV.”

The report does not talk about it, but a story in The Hill Wednesday said that some of the contract money went to a former Obama campaign adviser who helped “craft his Hispanic advertising message.”

That would make sense because Hispanics were one of the hard-to-reach audiences the FCC was trying to reach as part of a last-minute push to alert viewers, a push partly necessitated, the report points out, by Congress’ move of the date from Feb. 17 at the last minute.

If you ask me, some of that DTV stimulus money may indeed have been necessary because the president appeared, at least in the eyes of one B&C blogger whose name shall remain nameless, to be missing lots of earned media opportunities–interviews, late night talk show gigs, appearances on Hispanic awards shows–to plug the transition to those populations as the days dwindled down to a precious few.

The report throws in the fact that then FCC Chairman Kevin Martin spent $350,000 to sponsor a race driver only to have the DTV transition car wreck, but that just seemed to be mentioned for effect and the chance to use a photo of the damaged car, rather than being directly relevant to the Young & Rubicam contract, which it wasn’t.

Also getting skwered in the report is the NTIA’s $350 million for a broadband mapping program that the report, and at least one FCC commissioner, suggests could be obsolete by the time it is complete. The online map does not have to be completed until February 2011, but by that time all the broadband projects getting stimulus money to reach underserved and unserved areas must be already in the pipeline, as it were. The FCC’s own plan for how to reach the unserved and underserved areas, which arguably would be greatly helped by the map identifying who has broadband, has to be to Congress in February 2010. Actually both February dates are the 17th, perhaps an homage to the DTV transition date that wasn’t.

The FCC and NTIA efforts joined grants to search for Argentinian fossils; “anti-capitalist, socially conscious puppet shows”; a project to track the daily use of malt liquor and marijuana by residents of Buffalo, N.Y.; and a bike trail to the Minnesota Twins baseball park on the McCain-Coburn skewer,

Why does the report pick on a few million here and there? “When we downplay wasting money on a $6 million project, it is easy to do it again ten more times,” say the Senators in the introduction. “Once $60 million is out the door, it is easy to spend another $60 million and before you know it, billions of dollars we do not have are spent on things we do not need. Sadly, this type of spending is excused in Congress because ―it‘s always been done that way.”

“Congress rightly recognized that increasing broadband access and adoption in communities being left behind in the 21st Century economy depended on better data collection and broadband planning,” said NTIA spokesperson Jessica Schafer. “They allocated the time and the resources necessary to carry out this unprecedented mapping program, and our goal is to execute it on schedule and at the lowest cost necessary to do the job right.”

The FCC had not responded with a comment at press time.