Feds Cast a Wide Net for Broadband Projects

ARLINGTON, Va. — The federal government is taking a “holistic” approach that will involve multiple agencies as it moves rapidly toward dispersing the $7.2 billion in grants and loans for broadband projects provided under the economic stimulus package, one senior government official overseeing the effort said today at an industry conference.

Mark Seifert, who is heading up the broadband grant program at the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, talked about the importance of “breaking down silos” among government agencies to coordinate the application and dispersal of grants.

“I think a one-stop application process would be a major achievement,” he said.

By statute, NTIA and the Rural Utilities Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture, are the only agencies with money to give directly to broadband projects. The Federal Communications Commission is directed to provide technical expertise as those agencies evaluate applications, and to develop a comprehensive national broadband strategy and a map of the deployment and adoption rates throughout the country.

But Seifert said the government is taking a much broader approach than that.

In a speech this morning here at the Pike and Fischer Broadband Policy Summit, Seifert said he is encouraging grant applicants to cast a wide net when developing their proposals.

That could mean looking at local or state highway projects, for instance. The idea is that if a transportation authority is digging up a road, that would be a prime opportunity to lay a broadband pipe to avoid digging the same trench twice.

Indeed, earlier this week, a pair of senators introduced the so-called “dig once” bill, which would require transportation projects supported by federal funds to lay fiber optic cable alongside roads or railways under construction.

Another approach for broadband applicants could involve housing projects. Seifert said a refurbishment project the Department of Housing and Urban Development is undertaking would also make a cost-efficient opportunity for a network build-out.

“If you’re ripping off all the walls of a public housing community, that might be a perfect opportunity to run some fiber,” he said.

Given that that the economic stimulus was born from the Obama administration’s urgent call for programs that would create jobs, Seifert said the agencies are working at a rapid-fire pace to get the grants out the door.

“As [Commerce] Secretary [Gary] Locke has told us, they want us to do it fast, and they want us to do it right,” he said. “That’s our goal, that’s our encouragement, and that’s our task.”

NTIA and RUS are expected to publish rules for grants and loan applications by the end of this month, with the first round of three rounds of funding to be awarded by the end of the year.

That means that the fact-finding missions underway at the FCC — the development of the broadband strategy and the mapping project — will happen apace with the dispersal of the grant money.

Seifert said he hoped the map would be far enough along to help inform the second and third rounds of grants.

Likewise, the learning process of the first round of grants at NTIA and RUS should also shed light on the FCC’s work on the broadband strategy and map.

“We believe the data from our grant programs … will help inform the FCC’s processes,” he said.

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