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Broadband Stimulus Plan: Spend First, Ask Questions Later

There has been some noise in technology circles the last week over the FCC comment period or Notice of Inquiry (NOI) in regards to the broadband Internet portion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act otherwise known as "the stimulus." The NOI allows individuals, association groups, public policy organizations like CEI, and businesses to issue their comments, suggestions, advise—anything really—to the FCC.   This allows "the public" to describe how they feel like the funds should be spent and the best strategy to improve the state of broadband deployment in under-served an unserved areas. The comment period is intended to help formulate the National Broadband Strategy which is required to be completed one year from the recovery act being signed in to law.  This means that the strategy will come due around the 17th of February 2010. There is a major problem with the process that is being used in this case.  The majority of the funds will be distributed prior to the completion of this strategy that will decide how best to distribute and use them.  Cart before the horse much? The US Department of Agriculture who has used the Rural Utilities Services (RUS) division to improve broadband distribution in the past has been awarded funds for distribution from the stimulus.  RUS plans to distribute its roughly $2.5 billion by September 30th, 2009.  The National Telecommunications and Information Administration—who received the bulk of the broadband stimulus funds—will hand out their dollars in three phases occurring Spring of 2009, Fall of 2009, and Spring of 2010. The bill writers recognized the need to give the issue a good deal of study to attempt to create a solid plan, but the process also seems to indicate that they felt to create new jobs fast, so the funds needed to be spent fairly quickly to provide stimulus to the economy.  This creates a Catch-22 and certainly suggests that maybe these funds shouldn't have been spent at all, or in the very least that they should not have been tied up in the stimulus. A year-long strategy session is pointless if you hand out the money before the plan is even drafted, and there is a good chance that the strategy that comes out of the session won't be implemented because the money will have been spent. Most likely, the strategy will be proposed and written based on who has the funds, not who could best use them.   So this broadband stimulus is almost certain to fall short of its goal of  increasing broadband access for unserved and underserved areas. But this is what we should expect from our new, "smarter" government.  The same old, dumb results.