Will broadband funding make a difference?

I keep reading various articles questioning whether the stimulus money going toward broadband services will make much difference. In essence, say critics, injecting more money into broadband projects that were going to be done anyway is waste. Moreover, they argue the money won't have much impact because it's only 1 percent--$7.2 billion--of the overall stimulus package.

That could very well happen if that money primarily gets into the hands of incumbents and large providers. That's why meetings the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is in charge of giving out $4.7 billion, has scheduled for March 2 (see story below) and the subsequent award process could ultimately determine whether this broadband stimulus money makes an impact, said Craig Settles, head of Successful.com. He said that if larger providers dominate the process, that could shut out communities and smaller providers or at least hurt their chances of of significantly impacting their communities.

If communities play their cards right, they could effectively resurrect muni-wireless networks with a better business model, Settles said. We're already seeing a number of cities and counties doing WiFi the right way with sensible business models that might include partnerships with local ISPs or using local government as anchor tenants and/or a few other high-user tenants such as colleges and medical campuses.

I am reminded of an interview I did in 2007 with people from Greene County, N.C., that epitomizes what the stimulus money should be about. The county used WiFi to bolster its economy after it was devastated by a dramatic decline in the tobacco industry. It teamed with ISP Wavelength and received a federal grant to build out a WiFi network run by Wavelength and owned by the county. Apple subsequently partnered with the school district to provide laptop computers to middle-school and high-school students, while computer labs popped up throughout the county. The proliferation of computers in turn had a positive impact on high-school graduation rates and the number of students who went to college.

Moreover, new businesses began to move into the county because the cost of property was reasonable, and they could conduct business via the Internet. A new sweet potato processing plant opened. Smart Play US, which imprints tennis balls, moved in. Soon a state-of-the-art golf community was built, along with high-priced homes.

Now that is what I call a stimulus package.--Lynnette