Grant announcements disappoint many 700 MHz waiver jurisdictions
Yesterday, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke announced the 14 recipients of $206.8 million in broadband stimulus grants — monies sought by most of the 21 jurisdictions receiving FCC waivers to build out 700 MHz broadband wireless networks for public-safety users.
For first responders, the good news was that more than 80% of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant money awarded yesterday went to public-safety entities. The bad news was that only two jurisdictions — the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications Systems Authority ($154.6 million) and Adam County, Colo. ($12.1 million) — received funding.
Last month, five public-safety jurisdictions were announced as the recipients of more than $214 million in broadband grants that were part of the stimulus package enacted by Congress last year. In total, seven jurisdictions are expected to receive $380.7 million in stimulus grants to help make their first-responder broadband wireless plans a reality.
Certainly this kind of money is nothing to dismiss, but yesterday’s awards leave many of the 700 MHz waiver entities in limbo, because federal funding is a vital component to their broadband strategies in an era where budget cutbacks and employee layoffs have become the rule, not the exception.
Unfortunately, the demand for such grants apparently outstripped the supply provided by National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), according to Bill Schrier, CTO for the city of Seattle, one of the waiver jurisdictions seeking BTOP funds.
“The call I got from NTIA was pretty definitive,” Schrier said. “[The NTIA official] said, ‘Hey, you guys had a great application, but we ran out of money.’”
In addition to Seattle, other notable jurisdictions not receiving BTOP grants include New York City and Boston — entities that have been among the most outspoken in expressing the need for public-safety wireless broadband and the desire for the commercial 700 MHz D Block to be reallocated for first-responder use.
Schrier said Seattle has saved some money to help fund a broadband system, but only a portion of it. There is not enough money to pay for an entire LTE core network that would provide coverage for the entire city. Meanwhile, Seattle also has to decide what to do with its aging 800 MHz SmartZone narrowband network, which Motorola will not support after 2015, he said.
“We’ve got a lot of things to consider over the next few weeks, in terms of our own next steps,” Schrier said.
My bet is that similar discussions will be conducted in other 700 MHz waiver jurisdictions throughout the country. Money is tight in almost all government institutions at all levels, and most officials are focused more on maintaining existing systems and staffing levels than trying to tackle a massive broadband project that lacks a clear funding source.
With this in mind, the funding aspects of proposed legislation in Congress become more important than ever. If federal lawmakers commit relatively quickly to providing the more than $10 billion proposed in some bills, it will make a huge difference in the number of LTE networks that can be deployed. Without such funding, many of waiver jurisdictions’ plans to leverage the 700 MHz broadband spectrum could be put on hold for a significant time.
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