When broad is too narrow

The application period for the first broadband stimulus grants and loans from the National Telecommunications and Infrastructure Administration (NTIA) and the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) closes August 14. While we can expect all sorts of wailing and gnashing of teeth as applications are accepted and rejected, observers have warmed up by complaining about the Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) issued last month.

Among the concepts defined within the NOFA, no term received more attention than that of “broadband,” which the NOFA pegged at 768 kbps downstream and at least 200 kbps upstream. RUS and NTIA said they chose a definition that comprises these speeds “because it leverages the FCC’s expertise, utilizes an established standard [768 kbps is the “Tier 1” threshold in the current FCC broadband data collection process], facilitates the use of many currently common broadband applications (e.g., web browsing, VoIP, and one-way video), allows for consideration of cost-effective solutions for difficult-to-serve areas, and is the most technology-neutral option (because it encompasses all major wired and wireless technologies).”

The authors of the NOFA added that applications will be scored in part based on how the network’s highest advertised speed tier exceeds this minimum figure. Still, many thought that the NOFA set the bar too low.

In general, I agree with the critics. True, in certain areas topology, economics, and lack of population density combine to make anything closer to 1 Mbps downstream fiscally ridiculous. Still, one doesn’t have to be too suspicious of government decision makers to worry that many winning projects won’t be engineered to exceed this minimum level by very much. Advertising a high data rate is one thing; pricing it and delivering it economically so that the majority of potential customers can enjoy the service is something else.

The NTIA and RUS should have defined the limited circumstances in which such comparatively slow speeds would be acceptable. Without such a definition, we can only hope that those who evaluate the funding proposals know what they’re doing.

Stephen M. Hardy Editorial Director & Associate Publisherstephenh@pennwell.com

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