Broadband stimulus brings all sorts of bedfellows

A host of bedfellows and companies advertising turnkey grant-application help and network buildout are emerging to vie for pieces of the $7.2 billion in broadband stimulus money. As I've said before, the name of the game is to be "broadband stimulus ready," especially since the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA), which is granting the bulk of the money, is expected to issue grant application rules by late June with the application deadline possibly coming 30 days later. There simply isn't much time.

Last week, the not-for-profit National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC), which represents about 1,400 rural electric and telephone companies across 48 states, completed a distribution agreement with rural WiMAX operator DigitalBridge Communications and said it also made a "significant," though undisclosed, investment in DigitalBridge. The move positions NRTC companies to be ready to move on grant applications--which are rumored to be due by the end of July.

The agreement between NRTC and DigitalBridge comes just weeks after NRTC filed comments with the FCC saying it is developing a plan to enable its members to offer universal access to broadband throughout rural areas by using a combination of WiMAX and satellite. Moreover, DigitalBridge may be small, but it probably has more experience than anyone when it comes to deploying mobile WiMAX in rural areas. During last month's CTIA trade show, DigitalBridge CEO Kelly Dunne said the operator had achieved 20 percent penetration in less than 18 months in the three markets in which it has rolled out standardized mobile WiMAX. Those markets also are EBITDA positive.

Agencies in Texas are jointly issuing an RFI for providers that can help them win funds. The RFI is seeking experienced applicants to help it map the state's broadband availability gaps and work with service providers to encourage broadband deployment.

Satellite company WildBlue Communications has joined with competitors Hughes Networks and Inmarsat to push satellite as a viable solution for underserved and unserved areas.

Meanwhile, vendors like Alcatel-Lucent and Harris Stratex have introduced turnkey partnership programs designed to help potential service providers fill out their applications, meet the deadlines and offer end-to-end network design and rollout.

Yes, rural broadband has become the next telecom growth wave. Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of all from the broadband stimulus money will be WiMAX technology because it's ready to go now. As Gerson Lehrman Group pointed out: "There are three technologies that may be favored for these projects: WiMAX, WiMAX and WiMAX. Only WiMAX can be deployed on such short notice with minimal planning delivering maximum last mile broadband for the least cost per megabit delivered per subscriber." --Lynnette

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