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Broadband $ Not Redundant, Says Advisor

Obama Administration telecom policy advisor and NTIA AdministratorLawrence Strickling says his agency will meet an Oct. 1 deadline for a report on how it will team with the FCC to help find 500 MHz of spectrum for wireless broadband, as well as for handing out the bulk of its $4.7 billion in broadband stimulus grants. (NTIA still had about $2.5 billion of its $4.7 billion to hand out at presstime.)

In an interview with B&C Washington Bureau Chief John Eggerton, Strickling defends criticisms that some of that money may be going to overbuild broadband service already being provided by cable operators. He also assures broadcasters that government users would be hit up for their share of the 500 MHz of spectrum needed for commercial broadband services. An edited transcript follows.

In an interview withB&C, NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow used the term "disaster" in reference to the broadband stimulus funding, saying some of the funding is going to overbuilding services already being provided by private investment.

He's wrong. It may just reflect not a complete understanding of our program and our goals under the statute. One was to expand broadband to un-served and under-served areas. An equally important priority was to meet the needs of anchor institutions, including schools, libraries, hospitals and state government. We also have a separate purpose on public safety.

But if Kyle is saying we should only have focused on un-served households, that was never what the Recovery Act stood for. It was never part of our mission as we saw it. We viewed our mission as simply to reward money to projects where we could meet the greatest level of need. That is the way we have gone at this in all the projects that we have awarded. Anchor institutions have a much different set of needs from businesses and residences, and that is reflected in the awards that we have given.

You say "we" have to come up with 500 MHz, so you include the FCC. How much do you have to come up with on the government side?

That has not yet been determined. We're going to look at probably 2,000 MHz of spectrum, federal, nonfederal and shared. How it breaks out at the end between federal and nonfederal, I couldn't predict.

Is it possible that if you freed up more on the government side, maybe broadcasters might have to free up less than the 120 MHz target?

It would be premature to speculate on that.

What would you say to broadcasters worried that the DOD could just invoke national security and keep their spectrum, and the burden could fall more on them?

I would tell federal agencies and existing commercial licensees that this is going to be a thorough and full analysis, and we are looking for spectrum from both sets of interests. We will be as fair and thorough as we can.

But everybody's spectrum is on the table?


How are you monitoring the broadband stimulus grant program for compliance as well as waste and fraud to make sure it isn't actually going to people who shouldn't be getting it? Will the $302 million you had rescinded as part of the teacher pay package affect that?

 No, that $302 million is unrelated.

Before we make grant awards, we give proposals a top-to-bottom review to ensure that taxpayer dollars are invested prudently. But we still need to perform thorough oversight of the projects as they are being implemented. We are hopeful that we will get the dollars in the 2011 budget to perform that oversight responsibility. We have a whole program planned out that involves reporting by the applicants and having program officers assigned to each of these projects that will include audits, site visits and whatever else to stay on top of the progress of these grants as they go forward. As for the repurposed funds, that only accounts for a small portion of the billions of dollars we are investing in broadband, and it doesn't change the need to oversee this investment so that it delivers all the intended benefits to the public.

But that funding is at risk?

That budget has not been passed yet, but two subcommittees that have looked at that request up on the Hill both have not approved funding at the $23.7 million level. We think it is critical we be funded at that level to have the ability to provide the level of oversight these projects will require.

What is the status of NTIA's broadband stimulus grant program and when do you have to hand out your last grants?

We have a statutory deadline for Sept. 30. As of today we are on track to get all of that money out by the end of September.

Where are you in the broadband inventory process and how can you be sure you are not overbuilding if you don't yet know where all that broadband is?

That question has been with us since the beginning of the program and the fact of the matter is that we looked at each project based on the information they supply. We also have information that each of the states has supplied us about where there areas of need are. Many of the states actually reviewed the applications themselves and recommended some applications. We take that into account.

Carriers who offer service in the areas also supplied information to us so we had that available as we looked at it.  And we also insisted the applicant provide information from, in particular, the anchor institutions that they intend to serve with their project and understand their level of need.

One of the things we found is that the fact that there may be one megabit DSL service to homes in a community in no way tells you whether or not the anchor institutions, who generally have much more substantial bandwidth needs are being adequately served. And we have taken that into account.

Let's turn to spectrum reclamation for a moment. What are the NTIA's marching orders and what do you have to deliver by Oct. 1?

It all flows out of the executive memorandum. There are four work flows. First and foremost is finding the 500 Mhz. By Oct. 1, we have been directed to providing a plan and a timetable as to how we will conduct that analysis, which will lead to 500 mHz being identified that within 10 years can be made available for commercial broadband services.

We were separately asked to look at a handful of bands that don't involve any relocation of federal operations but to determine whether there were opportunities to make some of that available for commercial broadband.

Also as part of the October plan, OMB is supposed to provide information and a plan for how they can provide the financial assistance to federal agencies who might incur expenses related to either the reallocation or relocation. And then the fourth work flow is the directive to work with the National Science Foundation and other government agencies to come up with a plan for research and development in spectrum sharing. That does not have an Oct. 1 deadline, but the previous three items will be done by Oct. 1.

What you will see Oct. 1 will be a report from us regarding these fast-track bands. You will see a larger plan and timetable to do a larger evaluation to find the the 500 Mhz within 10 years, and you will also see OMB's plan for providing assistance.

As an advisor, would you tell the FCC to proceed with Title II reclassification or should Congress step in?

I don't have an opinion on that. Our view of it is that we want a free and open Internet and we are happy to see any number of processes that might get us there.

Part of NTIA's charter is advising the administration on Internet governance. What is your take on the Google/Verizon principles?

I haven't really had a chance to study it in any detail, but obviously on the larger issue on net neutrality the administration has been strong from the start that we support and open internet. We support innovation, investment, free speech, and consumer choice and we would certainly like to see that reflected in whatever action comes out of the process at the FCC.

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