SkyTerra’s grab for broadband stimulus money could be a bellwether
Satellite provider SkyTerra has applied for $37 million in broadband stimulus money — money that the federal government is granting to entities willing to bridge the digital divide. But SkyTerra’s proposal calls for increasing broadband adoption by the public-safety community, not the average citizen for whom the program appears to be primarily intended.
Specifically, SkyTerra has asked for money from the National Telecommunciations & Information Administration’s (NTIA) Sustainable Adoption Program, and the company’s application calls for the development and deployment of dual-mode wireless devices, optimized for public-safety use, in the 700 MHz band.
SkyTerra’s application included letters expressing the need for this technology from cities and public-safety agencies in Texas and Florida. The filing also included a letter from Motorola expressing support for broadband stimulus funding.
The first round of applications has come to a close for those entities vying for a total of $7.2 billion being doled out by the NTIA and the Department of Agriculture to bring broadband services to underserved areas. The NTIA has said it will announce recipients of the first round of broadband stimulus awards no earlier than Sept. 14.
SkyTerra’s application certainly will be an important test of whether the federal government will lump the needs of public safety with those of the average American. The federal government has maintained that the goal for this stimulus money is to bring broadband to underserved areas. Meanwhile, the public-safety community is grappling with funding challenges regarding broadband networks in the 700 MHz band. SkyTerra’s application, if accepted, not only would be a boon for public safety in terms of the things the vendor wants to accomplish, but also serve as a signal that money can be shaken loose for public-safety broadband deployments in the 700 MHz band.
For this first round, the federal government has narrowly defined what constitutes an underserved area, said Rich Wonders, vice president of strategic marketing with Alcatel-Lucent Americas, which launched a broadband stimulus advisory group. Wonders said in a recent interview that many proposals presented to Alcatel-Lucent were designed to improve broadband access in areas that already had at least some high-speed service, so they did not meet the grant program’s guidelines.
“[NTIA and DOA] are looking for projects in very rural and very remote areas with no [broadband] service at all. … For this round of funding, the focus really isn’t on advanced broadband, but basic broadband connectivity,” Wonders said.
Moreover, the major telecom companies passed on this round, discouraged by the strings tied to the money — most notably that applicants providing wholesale access to their networks at reasonable rates will be given preference for funds. Incumbents are staunchly opposed to these types of net-neutrality requirements. Given this criterion, I suspect money will go to several wireless ISPs and municipalities.
There are still two more rounds of stimulus grants to go, and SkyTerra’s proposal could serve as a litmus test as to whether the federal government sees meeting public safety’s broadband needs as part of its overall broadband vision. If so, it could open up an entirely new funding arena for the 700 MHz band.