Gates Foundation Pegs Public Broadband Costs

The FCC is seeking public comments on an analysis of what it would take to provide broadband, fiber-optic connections to thousands of “anchor” institutions nationwide — a number that runs as high as $10 billion.

What’s so interesting, however, is that the analysis submitted on October 5, came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It’s all part of a broader initiative by the FCC known as the National Broadband Plan.

“The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation filed a cost model and cost estimates of providing fiber optic connectivity to anchor institutions, such as public schools and libraries, community colleges, and hospitals,” the FCC’s letter (as PDF) accompanying the analysis said.

Microsoft joined with other broadband initiative supporters last spring when they rolled out the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition.

Now the Gates Foundation is getting involved as well. The foundation’s submission, in cooperation with the coalition, titled Preliminary Cost Estimates on Connecting Anchor Institutions to Fiber, and dated September 25, provides a cost model for connecting anchor institutions. The analysis was published by the FCC for public comment on October 8.

Bill Gates, who remains chairman of Microsoft and is its largest single stockholder, no longer works day to day at the company he co-founded, instead spending most of his time on the Gates’ family charity, one of the best funded charities in the world with more than $30 billion (PDF) in endowments.

However, the Gates Foundation has, to date, mostly focused on less high-tech projects, including increasing child immunizations globally, initiatives to wipe out malaria, and improving education.

The scope of the deployment challenge

The cost model breaks areas down according to population density — dense urban, urban, suburban, and rural. Overall, the model is meant to help estimate the costs for deploying fiber optic connections to anchor institutions that don’t already have broadband hook ups — some 80 percent of an estimated 123,000 institutions across the U.S.

The ultimate price tag, according to the foundation’s cost model, ranges between roughly $5 billion and $10 billion. Estimated costs per site vary. For instance, a low-end cost projection in a dense urban environment could cost as little as $15,000 per site.

Meanwhile, a high-end installation in a suburban area could go as high as $205,000 per site. The estimates include costs to install the fiber optic cable, the cost of the cable, and termination equipment.

The foundation, however, is only providing estimates — not actual dollars — at least at this point.

“In submitting this analysis, we seek to assist federal agencies in their efforts to deploy broadband technologies more broadly and to encourage others with greater expertise in this area to come forward with additional data and information that can be used to improve upon this preliminary assessment,” the analysis said.

The public comment period for the Gates Foundation’s cost analysis runs until October 28. A spokesperson for the Gates Foundation did not return a call for further comment prior to publication.

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