NTIA, RUS To Delay Announcement Of Broadband Bid Winners

The naming of winning bidders in the broadband stimulus grant/loan program will be delayed by a month or so, according to the heads of the relevant government agencies.

The self-imposed deadline had been early November, but NTIA head Larry Strickling said Tuesday: "We're going to take a few more weeks here to get this right...I will not fund a bad application."

That came in a Senate Commerce Committee's Communications Subcommittee oversight hearing on the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) and Rural Utilities Services' (RUS) broadband stimulus grant and loan programs under the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program.

The committee heard from Strickling, RUS administrator and former FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, and Mark Goldstein, who heads up infrastructure issues for the Goverment Accountability Office.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) says the government needs to simplify the broadband stimulus grant/loan program, and said he knows that the heads of those programs agree.

The definition of remote was a key issue in the hearing.

Rockefeller echoed concerns expressed in the House about the definition of remote, which is currently defined as at least 50 miles from an urban area.

Adelstein said there is a growing consensus that the 50 miles might have been the wrong figure, and that there were other ways to define remote, like population density or income.

Rockefeller pushed the issue, asking whether that change would be made. "There is really no excuse for us not doing that," he said. Subcommittee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) also has problems with the current definition. He asked for more specficis.

Adelstein said everything is on the table in what will be a top-to-bottom review of how to better define remote, but at the same time not make the definition too complicated. "We'll help you," said Kerry.

Senator Kerry asked wether underserved blocks in urban areas would also get the government's help with adoption. Strickling said yes. He asked what NTIA's approach would be to anchor institutions.

Strickling said that those institutions may be where the government should be concentrating much of its money, particularly in the initial round of funding.

NTIA had been preparing in the next couple of weeks to announce the first winners in what will now be a two-step process of handing out billions in stimulus money for broadband mapping, adoption and service to unserved and underserved areas.

That will now be pushed to early December. Adelstein cited the complexity of the program and the demands on the agencies, a point echoed by Goldstein.

The cable and telco industries have criticized the process by which incumbents are able to check out the claims by bidders of unserved and underserved, including the 30-day deadline to weigh in. Even given those challenges, the National Cable & Telecommunications Assocociation and US Telecom say that they have uncovered hundreds of bids for areas where they already provide broadband service.

Comcast planned to provide supporting data for some of those hundreds of overlaps by Wednesday (Oct. 28), the 30-day deadline incumbents have to challenge bidders' claims, though Comcast says it is not challenging, simply providing information.

Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) registered her concern that the government was putting the cart before the horse by handing out money before a national broadband mapping effort was due to be completed in 2011. "You are right that in a perfect world it would be simpler with the map," said Strickling, but he said not having them would not thwart their goals given the information they do have, including from bidders and incumbents. 

Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri said there was no reason to have both RUS and NTIA handing out the money, that it made it complicated for the people bidding for projects and for those in Congress having to oversee it.

She said that if she could wave a magic wand, she would morph Adelstein and Strickling into one person and RUS and NTIA into one agency.

Senator John Ensign (R-Nev.) said he thought that the remote definition was on the right track by trageting unserved areas, and advised Strickling and Adelstein to strike a balance when coming up with a new definition rather than going to far in the other direction

Strickling said he expected NTIA to be awarding grants for speeds substantially higher than 768 kbps, which he said was just a floor for applying (it is also the FCC's definition of high speed). He pointed out that applicants got extra points for higher speeds. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) asked whether there would be any changes in criteria for the next round. Adlestein said yes, but did not say what they would be. Strickling agreed that lessons from the first round would be reflected in the next.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.