Feds grant WA $84 million for broadband expansion

March 2, 2010

The U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced today a grant of $84 million to the Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet) "to deliver new and enhanced broadband capabilities to some of the more remote regions of the state by adding 830 miles of figer and eight new microwave sites to their existing high-speed network."

The funds for this grant are a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's (ARRA, aka "Stimulus package") pool of $7.2 billion to fund projects that will expand access and adoption of broadband. 

The goal of enhanced broadband, particularly to unserved or underserved areas is laudable. According to the project factsheet, one of the goals is establishing a 100Mbps network to libraries, government facilities, medical centers, tribal service centers and community colleges. This lines up with what FCC Chairman Genachowski called for in his 100 squared comments (100Mbps x 100 million Americans) as well as the anticipated FCC National Broadband Plan to be announced on March 17th. 

Is this $84 million grant a good thing? Of course. It will help bring a more robust network to a few rural places in Washington. The concern? That more money and resources are being redirected towards public utility districts, which have expressed in the past that they want to own and operate their own networks regardless if there is a private-sector ISP. One of the main reasons for public utility districts owning ! and operating a network is lack of market competition (an ofte! n misused qualifier, but I digress). However, once a few of the more remotely-located PUDs get their hands on their own networks, whether it's under the guise of enhanced broadband rollout or simply providing market competition, we will see a push for other PUDs and municipalities to own their own networks as well. Such arrangements often have their fair share of problems

Based on these Pew Internet usage poll numbers, I think policymakers should be realistic about how broadband will change rural and underserved areas. There is no doubt that broadband enhancement has the ability to increase economic activity in areas that previously did not have access, but nothing is guaranteed. Access to broadband -- both wired and wireless -- is increasing at a rapid clip, even though actual adoption may have curtailed (but data consumption among users continues to skyrocket). The reasons why some choose to forgo broadband connections range from "too expensive" and "have no need," among others. 

As broadband rollout moves forward, we have to be careful to not indulge in a "if we build it they will come" mentality, which would result in significant resources being wasted to bring high speed connections to people who do not want them, or are unable to pay the substantial connection costs. Laying fiber to the home (or relying on cable's equally fast DOCSIS 3.0) is very capital intensive. The reason that some folks out in rural areas do not! have the speeds we urban dwellers have has to do with economics, not s! ome conspiracy against rural folks or market competition.