The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 allocates $7.2 billion for U.S. broadband infrastructure investments. $4.7 billion will be distributed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) within the Department of Commerce and $2.5 billion will be distributed by the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) within the Department of Agriculture.
The NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) is intended to create jobs and economic opportunities – along with educational, healthcare, and public safety benefits – by improving the affordability, subscribership, and speed of broadband access in “unserved” and “underserved” areas. In the process of issuing application guidelines, NTIA must define “unserved” and “underserved” areas and “broadband” speeds for wireline and wireless networks, respectively. Grants are to be awarded based on competitive proposals, with at least one grant in each state or territory, and all grants must be awarded by September 30, 2010. Eligible grantees may include state and local governments, non-profit entities, wireline and wireless carriers, satellite operators, and backhaul and tower companies. Grantees must comply with nondiscrimination and interconnection requirements, including the FCC’s four network neutrality principles.
The RUS’s “Distance Learning, Telemedicine, and Broadband Program” will provide grants, loans and loan guarantees for broadband infrastructure primarily in rural areas that the agency finds to be without sufficient access to high speed broadband service to facilitate rural economic development. No area of a project receiving funding from the RUS program will be eligible for NTIA funds, but it will be possible for parties to submit applications to both agencies. The law also specifies many other detailed criteria and priorities for the NTIA and RUS programs, respectively.
In addition, the law directs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to develop a “national broadband plan” within one year. This plan is to evaluate the status of broadband deployment, analyze the most effective and efficient mechanisms for ensuring broadband access throughout the country, and specify a strategy to maximize affordability and usage of such service and achieve a range of public benefits.
On March 9, 2009, NTIA and RUS issued jointly a Request for Information (RFI) regarding the two broadband stimulus programs. The purpose of the RFI was to elicit written comments on various aspects of the two programs, including eligibility and evaluation criteria, definitional terms and the scope of certain program obligations, that must be delineated in the final guidelines for the two programs. Comments in response to the RFI are due on or before April 13, 2009. In addition, NTIA and RUS have begun to host a series of public meetings on discrete topics relating to the two programs in Washington, D.C. (March 16, 19, 23 and 24), Las Vegas, Nevada (March 17) and Flagstaff, Arizona (March 18). Information regarding the location, time and agenda for these meetings can be found at http://www.ntia.doc.gov/press/2009/BTOP_Advisory_090314.pdf.