Public safety seeing little direct benefit from stimulus awards
As expected, government groups or non-profit consortiums that bring private companies and government entities together are the big winners of broadband stimulus awards so far. As such, public safety is turning out to be a winner, but in an indirect way.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), along with the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) program, is granting and loaning $7.2 billion in stimulus money to bring broadband to unserved and underserved areas. The first-round recipients will receive $4 billion, with the government releasing the remaining funds in 2010.
It’s clear NTIA and RUS are favoring public/private partnerships and have made that a strong emphasis for the next round of funding. Middle-mile networks are also an emphasis for NTIA, while RUS will focus more on last-mile projects.
For instance, the NTIA awarded $11.9 million for the deployment of a 130-mile fiber network across DeKalb County and northern LaSalle County in Illinois. The network will provide high-speed Internet connections to at least 60 anchor institutions, including schools, hospitals, libraries, public-safety entities and numerous government agencies.
Many of the grants and loans issued so far sound similar. As such, public safety should benefit from better connectivity, with more remote video cameras and other connected services that will make life easier responders and enhance safety for first. But what public safety really needs is mobile broadband.
Unfortunately, many experts have told me that NTIA and RUS are playing it extremely safe and, of course, are looking for the biggest bang for their buck. So, applications that throw as many stakeholders as possible for broadband services are more likely going to be the ones that win. Middle-mile fiber projects are the favorite, but they don’t guarantee proliferation of last-mile broadband services. It still costs money to make a last-mile connection to it.
Moreover, there is an obvious aversion to wireless networks. Whenever NTIA or RUS announce a series of winners, it’s usually one wireless project that is included in the bunch. That move is a far cry from what experts initially thought. It was expected to be a boon for WiMAX, because the technology is quick to deploy. But fiber again is the safer bet.
It’s a shame, given the fact that many creative last-mile wireless broadband projects that were submitted to NTIA and RUS might not see the light of day. For instance, the New York State Association of Counties requested $186.6 million to deploy a public-safety broadband network in the 700 MHz band for use in 27 participating rural counties throughout the state. It also asked for another $79.5 million to deploy a network in the band for public-safety use in nine non-rural counties.
Kennebec Communications asked for $76.1 million in grants and loans to construct a public-safety mobile wireless broadband network to provide mobile broadband services to public safety, households, businesses and key community organizations in the state of South Dakota. The network would be based on 4G wireless technology leveraging statewide 700 MHz licenses.
NTIA and RUS could surprise me, but it’s highly doubtful. In all, it seems like the whole process has been dumbed down, and it makes me wonder if the goal of spreading broadband to the masses will be realized.
Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance — a Minneapolis-based non-profit that educates local governments about their broadband options — tells it best: “There is so much middle-mile focus just to avoid controversy and raising the anger of the incumbent service providers. It’s a tremendous loss. We were excited years ago, and then to see the way the agencies interpreted it is disappointing.”
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