U.S. Accelerates Award of Broadband Stimulus Grants

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To speed up the distribution of $7.2 billion in federal stimulus money, the U.S. government agencies overseeing the campaign to extend broadband Internet services across the country announced plans Nov. 10 to compress the last two award cycles into a single round.

The Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) and the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) were deluged with proposals for high-speed Internet projects during the first funding round in August. Those awards, worth approximately $4 billion, are scheduled to be announced in mid-December, according to NTIA spokeswoman Jessica Schafer.

The second and final round, which will include the remaining $3.2 billion in funding, is expected to commence in February. In preparation for that round, RUS and NTIA officials are seeking comments on aspects of the broadband plan that are of critical importance to satellite service providers vying for the money: the speed of qualifying systems and the determination of which communities should qualify as “unserved” and “underserved.”

“With respect to the definition of broadband, some stakeholders criticized the speed thresholds that were adopted and some argued that they were inadequate to support many advanced broadband applications, especially the needs of large institutional users,” according to the Federal Register notice. “Should the definition of broadband include a higher speed and should the speeds relate to the types of projects?”

In addition, the agencies asked for comments on whether projects near urban areas were being unfairly excluded from the program. During the first round, the government based its definition of unserved and underserved communities on the proportion of households that lacked access to broadband. For the second round, the government is seeking comment on whether it should also consider the affordability of available broadband service, including satellite-based broadband.