Sorting out the public comment phase

Now that we've had several public meetings to gather feedback for the upcoming stimulus grant bonanza, let's look at some of the direction that should be taking shape for NTIA and RUS (Dept of Commerce and Agriculture agencies, respectively) to disburse grants.

First, if they're listening intently with a critical and tech-savvy ear, both agencies understand Congress got it right. Top priority should be given to local government and related nonprofits to receive grant money. The various community speakers and online contributors collectively made clear their respective needs are different and the challenges to meeting these needs in many communities are complex.

You cannot give billions of dollars to one or two companies with their limited technology solutions and say, "fix each unique community's needs." The U.S. is way beyond a one-vendor and one-technology-fits-all solution. Expect many community proposals to incorporate multiple technologies. City and county governments are the ones to assess their needs, define the best and most cost-effective technology requirements and select vendors/providers to meet those requirements.

NTIA and RUS, tell Scotty to raise the Enterprise's deflector shields against incumbent attempts to gain control of the process to fix a mess for which incumbents bear much responsibility. Broadband grants need to go mainly to Federation communities, while local and smaller regional providers are the part of the private sector most likely to help Starfleet Command carry out its two-year mission. This statement leads to my second point.

Congress also got it right when they said in the broadband bill that a private-sector company can be considered for a grant when the NTIA or RUS finds that "by rule" the company's proposal is in the public interest. The rule these agencies need to put in place is that no private company gets a grant without a clearly identified public partner that testifies to the public interest of the project, and holds said company accountable to deliver proposed network.

"In the public interest" translates to "broadband network that addresses the needs of the community for which it is proposed." Which proposal do you trust more to deliver a network to best address local issues, a proposal from a company that has no clear involvement or binding obligation to the community? Or a proposal from a company that has worked hand-in-hand with the community to develop the proposal?

Regarding any requirements for public/private partnerships, the incumbents have to collectively let out that fine whine familiar to so many parents of toddlers: "If you force us to follow a rule we don't like, we're gonna run away from home." Let ‘em go. That's right, I said it. Tell the big telcos and cable companies to leave if they don't like the rules. And don't forget to turn out the lights when they leave, save a little energy.

I have no doubt local communities will find their own solutions and providers. The incumbents wouldn't help Lafayette, La., meet its needs, so the city created their own solution. Franklin County, Va., didn't get much incumbent love either, so two local guys (one with a bunch of money, the other with a bunch of tech skills) started a company that partnered with the county government to build a network that's serving the public interest on many levels.  

This theme repeats itself in towns and counties across America. In the history of technology, how many times did industry behemoths lead the next revolution? It was almost always the small, agile, needs-focused little companies taking us to the next level. These too shall be our champions of the broadband revolution. NTIA and RUS will do well to remember--and repeat--history. The small providers will gladly step into the breach.

On the flip side of the private/public equation, an observation from the public meetings needs to go out to communities that may be painful for them to accept. My next analysis report, which addresses the broadband dash for dollars, looks at a rural 10-18-county effort that's being formulated to pursue grants based on this observation.

After sitting through testimony, panel discussions and online input two weeks, you realize that there isn't enough agency staff, time or money to address the flood of proposals poised to gush through the gates. Small communities and even some mid-size towns, no matter how deserving their projects, are almost assured to get lost in the flood. Those with the best chance of getting money are communities that band together.

Casey Beard, Director of the Morrow County, Ore., Emergency Management Department describes the reason behind his multi-county proposal. "Most of the communities out here are similar enough with common enough problems to make it easier to address them as a whole. Counties can share each other's resources." In other words, some networks are owned by the counties, some by fire departments and others by organizations that potentially are users of the final network. Sharing these resources will allow departments such as Beard's to build more for less. For rural communities, the only option for getting this money is to work together.

In the final two weeks of gathering feedback in what ultimately should be an extensive end-user needs assessment by NTIA and RUS, there should be a whole lot of partnering going on. The broadband race, at least in the first round of funding, is most likely going to the swift, the strong business planners and the ones with the best partnerships.

Craig Settles is an industry analyst and workshop leader who helps organizations understand the benefits of broadband and mobile technology. Check out his website at www.successful.com.

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