NTIA Seeks Definition Of Unserved, Underserved Broadband Areas

Add up all the suggestions for who qualifies as underserved when it comes to broadband access and it would appear to cover literally everyone in the country, including anyone whose service provider was impeding peer-to-peer traffic and charging more than some could afford.

That was the message sent Thursday as the National Telecommunications & Information Administration continued its "definition day" with an afternoon public session on how to define unserved and underserved areas in terms of qualification for billions in broadband stimulus grants.

The morning session had been about defining broadband, another factor in the government's decision on where to award $7.2 billion in broadband stimulus funds.

Underserved would include the disabled community and would not be about geography, said Mark Richert of the American Foundation for the Blind, but about access to the technology as well as the service. He pointed out that the percentage of the disabled who take broadband service is only half that of the population as a whole.

American Cable Association President Matt Polka said speed was one of the keys, saying support for long-distance fiber lines will "ensure that rural cable operators with upgraded networks can provide their customers with speedy access to the Internet backbone, sometimes located dozens of miles from a cable company's main office."

Taking one of the most expansive views of underserved was Joanne Hovis representing the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors. She pointed out that the $7.2 billion could not provide broadband to all the unserved areas, said instead it should be tested in various places, urban and rural, small and large, with the definition of underserved, including affordability and speed. She said she was not talking about speedy delivery of TV and entertainment, but broadband as a utility for community development.

A complication could arise from the suggestio by a representative of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners that states be allowed to finesse the definition depending on their particular needs. Say an area that might qualify as served according to a minimum speed definition might be deemed unserved in terms of a telemedicine application that required higher speeds.

The NTIA is soliciting public comment on those and other issues surrounding the grant process until April 13, then needs to move swiftly to start getting the money out according to its timetable of three different tranches of funding over the two years Congress has given it to hand out all the money.

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.