Strickling, Adelstein Tackle Rural Broadband at Oversight Hearing

There may only be two rounds of funding in the National Telecommunications & Information Administration/Rural Utility Service-administered $7.2 billion in broadband stimulus money. And the deadline for the second round could be pushed back, giving time to address some congressional criticisms of the guidelines for handing out the money.

That is according to NTIA head Larry Strickling, who told legislators Wednesday that was under consideration as a way to save administrative expenses and move back the deadline for any subsequent rounds of funding to apply some of the lessons learned from the first.

The first round of bidding is complete and was the subject of some criticism from both Democrats and Republicans in the House Communication Subcommittee, which held its second broadband stimulus oversight hearing Sept. 10.

Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (D-Va.) was particularly concerned that the grant/loan program's definition of remote communities foreclosed the government's most generous grants from many communities on the East Coast, which would include his rural Virginia district.

That is because to qualify for the 80%-100% grant level for remote communities, a community can't be within 50 miles of a city of 20,000 or more. Boucher pointed out that precluded much of the East Coast, including Appalachian communities that might be within a few miles of a town. But because of mountains and the cost of delivering service to populations as small as 100 people, he said, those communities are still remote and in need of more than the 50% grant match the program provided for.

Strickling and Jonathan Adelstein, administrator of the Rural Utility Service that is teaming with NTIA on the grants, assured him they would take that into account when making any changes to the rules for the second round of funding.

Adelstein pointed out that RUS, which is focused on rural broadband, had been criticized for being too urban in its targeting of funds, and that was the impetus behind trying to make sure the money went to as many truly rural areas a possible. Boucher asked for a geographic breakdown and whether it would show that the rural qualifications skewed toward more Western states. Adelstein said he would check into it.

Boucher also voiced concern that broadband speeds should be actual, rather than advertised, that the definition of high-speed--768 kbps--was not high enough and that 1.5 mbps might be a better baseline so that the definition of unserved vs. underserved was not too restrictive.

Strickling and Adelstein both indicated those concerns would be taken into account when making adjustments the next time around.

Boucher said he had heard from states that they were surprised to have gotten all the bids from their state to review, and were feeling overwhelmed. Strickling said that NTIA would make the final call and was just looking for input given the stimulus statute's direction that states had unique perspective.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), ranking member of the Energy & Commerce Committee, said he was concerned that the states, as both reviewers and bidders, had a built-in conflict. Strickling pointed out that the states' role was in the statute, and that if it was a conflict, "everyone can see it."

Barton and other Republicans wanted assurances that the program would favor states that had completed their broadband mapping, pointing out it made more sense to put money where the data was already in on broadband service gaps. Ranking subcommittee member Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) went so far as to say no money should be handed out until broadband mapping was complete.

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.