Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Rural Broadband: Ten Senators Say Unserved Rural Areas Must Be Funded First 03/11/09 Boston - A bipartisan group of US senators, drawn from states with substantial rural populations, has called upon agencies in the Obama Administration to prioritize broadband stimulus fund spending in unserved rural areas.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH)
Freshman Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) was the lead author of a letter sent to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Acting Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Michael Copps, and Acting Secretary of Commerce Otto Wolfe.

As first reported via a story in MultiChannel News, the Senators' letter was issued on March 9, a day before the multi-agency public meeting which kicked-off the rulemaking process for broadband stimulus grants. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of the Commerce Department, and the Rural Utilities Service of the Department of Agriculture (USDA-RUS) held a first-of-its-kind joint meeting to inform stakeholders of the regulation drafting processes for the broadband stimulus programs at each agency.

With the letter, Shaheen and her 9 Senate colleagues clearly staked-out their positions in favor of their rural constituencies as the agency processes got underway. Areas of the US fully "unserved" by broadband networks are overwhelming rural, while "underserved" areas have no working definition in current federal regulations, and can include urban and suburban locations.

Rural interests already achieved a political win as broadband stimulus monies in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) were allotted to the USDA-RUS, with an appropriation of $2.5 billion. During the congressional mark-ups that resulted in the broadband stimulus provisions in ARRA, several leading broadband advocates had pushed for centralizing all appropriations and program frameworks for broadband grants and loans at NTIA. 

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI)
The media reform and net neutrality advocacy group Free Press, for example, stated in a letter to Congress in January that "..grant monies should flow through a single administrative agency to ensure that accountability is clear and strict". In the final version of the ARRA, signed by President Obama on February 17, NTIA received a $4.7 billion appropriation for its Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP).

Joining Shaheen in issuing the letter were fellow Senators: Mark Begich (D-AK), Sam Brownback (R-KS), (Russ Feingold (D-WI), Kay Hagan (D-NC), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Pat Roberts (R-KS), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), and Ron Weyden (D-OR).

Senators Feingold, Merkley, Stabenow, and Weyden all serve on the important Budget Committee, from which they can frame the authorizations in the federal FY 2010 budget for further broadband grant, loan, or tax incentive support.

Feingold is the first among equals of the letter signatories, based on his position on the Budget Committee, his recent experience in 2007 and 2008 in winning greater funding in the Farm Bill of those years for rural broadband programs, and his political alliance with the lead appropriator in the House, Congressman Dave Obey (D-WI).

Obey, as Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was the lead sponsor of ARRA. He originates all appropriation bills on the Hill. Representing the very rural Wisconsin 7th Congressional District, Obey early on championed broadband funding in ARRA. His site that explains ARRA to his constituents states his view that "...
For every dollar invested in broadband, the economy sees a ten-fold return on that investment."

Continued federal appropriations, estimated widely at between $15 billion and $50 billion, will be necessary to build out high capacity networks to presently unserved regions. Senator Shaheen and her fellow signatories, together with their allies in the House, will need to continue to work as a rural broadband coalition to get that job done. It makes sense that they form common cause with the recently announced Congressional Rural Caucuss to do so.

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