Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Stimulating Oversight: What to Watch For in Today's Senate Hearing on Broadband Stimulus 10/27/09 San Francisco - What should observers of the $7.2 billion federal broadband stimulus program watch for in today's oversight hearing conducted by the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee?

As we reported last week, the full Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation will conduct an oversight hearing on the program, funded As part of the American Recovery and reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), beginning at 2:45 PM (ET) today.

Our suggestions of the significance of today's hearing, and what to watch for:

1. Timing Is Everything
Today's hearing will most likely be the last Congressional oversight proceeding before the next 2 major events in the national roll-out of the broadband stimulus program:

a. The release,
targeted within the next 7 - 10 days, of a new draft regulations, with a probable public comment cycle, for funding Round II of the program.

b. The start of announcements, on or about 11/07, of the project funding winners under funding Round I of the program. Senators and the agency chiefs from NTIA and RUS will all be staking-out their policy positions for both Round II procedures and substance.

Major consensus expressed by Committee members on any specific points will be reflected in the new draft regulations.

2. A Definitive Announcement on a Final Funding Round?
At the last House oversight hearing, NTIA Administrator Larry Strickling first floated the idea of one final funding round for the program, rather than the follow-on two rounds initially described by NTIA and RUS. Watch for a definitive statement on this point during today's hearing from the agencies.

3. The Role of the States
State governors' office, and state broadband programs heads across the nation were none to happy about the procedural change in how the input from the states was sought and collected in funding Round I. Some food fights have emerged in states like Minnesota and Missouri around these issues. Watch for some push back from senators on this point, for some mea culpas from Administrator Strickling (state input is strictly a factor in the NTIA - BTOP program, not in RUS - BIP).

4. Unserved / Underserved Definitions
Cable and telco incumbents last week expressed strong reservations about the definitions of unserved vs. under regions under the Round I funding guidelines. We are seeing some (probably not a lot) of incumbent challenges to Round I applicant's proposed service areas. Watch for statements from the agency chiefs about this issue, and partisan oriented positioning from the senators.

5. Rural Remote Definitions
In the last House oversight hearing, there was much discussion about how the "rural remote" definitions in the Round I rules made it impossible for many rural unserved areas of the nation to access program funds at the most favorable conditions. Look for RUS Administrator Johnathan Adelstein to have more definitive policy statements today on this point.

6. Rural vs. Urban: Setting the Long Term Agenda
Starting just weeks after the ink was dry on the ARRA legislation, signed by President Obama on 02/17/09, rural state U.S. Senators began pushing to make sure their constituencies took precedence in programmatic broadband stimulus funding.

Since that time, numerous constituencies and Members of the U.S. House have planted their respective flags lobbying instead for a focus on more urbanized underserved communities. Closely tracking with these issues are the community anchor institutional players, with libraries and educational groups in the forefront, arguing for the importance of funding for broadband big pipes to key institutions.

Watch for statements on the record from various senators as they frame this strategic level issue of 'rural vs. urban' for subsequent funding rounds in federal appropriations going forward.

The other lead 'big picture' policy issue to grapple with: Universal service Fund reform.
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