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Consultants Form Rural Broadband Coalition

Drop a few billion dollars into a Federal program and you'll attract some attention. The Rural Broadband Coalition (RBC) was recently founded by a group of consultants to help ISPs and others take advantage of the money that's pouring in to the broadband program of the Rural Utility Service (RUS), a service of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The RUS successfully brought electricity to many rural communities implementing the Rural Electrification Administration Act of 1936. Now the service has a similar program to bring broadband Internet to rural communities. The service defines rural communities as having a population of 20,000 or fewer.

Some providers have already benefited from the RUS programs. On the ISP-Wireless discussion list in October one list member, StoneBridge Wireless, proudly noted they had just received a loan worth $4.25 million over several years. The company is located outside of Minneapolis/St. Paul in Burnsville Minn.

Although it was not clear at press time how much money would actually be allocated to the broadband program in 2003, in February of 2002, the department requested $495 million for rural telecommunication loans.

Damian Kunko, CEO of the RBC, worked at Adaptive Systems International, where he helped healthcare companies obtain funds from the Department of Health and Human Services and helped defense contractors obtain funds from the Department of Defense. Kunko says the RBC anticipates strong interest from three groups: wireless ISPs, rural power utilities, and communities building their own fiber optic networks.

The RBC is a new coalition. It does not yet have a large membership, and is still examining the question of what its core mission should be.

"We're technology-neutral," says Kunko. "[President George W.] Bush has said that one of the four pillars of an economic recovery is making broadband ubiquitous and universal. We see strong bipartisan support for the funding of the program."

He said that support was so strong, in fact, that it might be possible to increase the amount of funding allocated to the rural broadband program. Currently, the program is projected to use $2 billion over six years. "We will lobby for more," says Kunko. "We will offer rural ISPs assistance with the grant loan process and we have consultants who can provide additional advisory services."

The coalition will also examine the other usual methods of funding, and may run a trade show in May or June. Kunko would like to set up meetings between member ISPs and their congressional representatives to ensure that the RUS program continues.

(Alex Goldman is an associate editor of ISP-Planet.com)