Biden Kicks Off Broadband Stimulus Funds With $2B Pledge

The Obama administration today is announcing the long-anticipated rollout of the first wave of economic stimulus funds to promote broadband projects, pledging that $2 billion in grants and loans will be dispersed over the next 75 days.

Vice President Joe Biden marked the occasion with an address this morning in Dawsonville, Ga., at a manufacturing firm that stands to benefit from a $33 million award for the North Georgia Network Cooperative, a regional ISP serving eight counties in a rural area of the state.

Biden’s initial announcement includes $182 million for 18 projects in 17 states awarded through programs administered by the departments of Commerce and Agriculture. Those projects have been matched by $46 million in private investment, the administration said.

Commerce and Agriculture will award the remainder of the $2 billion on a rolling basis over the next 75 days.

With today’s announcement, the dispersal of the $7.2 billion in total broadband stimulus funding set aside in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act begins in earnest. The agencies overseeing the funds have already doled out modest grants to organizations in 18 states and the District of Columbia for efforts to map broadband coverage, but until today had not committed any money for new network deployments.

In October, the heads of the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA), a division of the Commerce Department, and Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS), told a Senate panel that the initial awards would be delayed due to a flood of applications for grants and loans seeking a total of $28 billion, more than seven times the amount that was made available in the first tranche of funding.

The grants being announced today will fund both last-mile projects to connect remote homes in rural areas, and “middle-mile” infrastructure to connect communities to the Internet backbone.

They will also include programs to promote broadband adoption and to fund public computing centers.

“These critical broadband investments will create tens of thousands of jobs and stimulate the economy in the near term,” the White House National Economic Council said in a report accompanying today’s announcement. “By providing broadband-enabled opportunities to previously underserved communities, these investments will also lay the foundation for long-term regional economic development and foster a digitally literate workforce that can compete in the new knowledge-based economy.”

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke is scheduled to appear in Maine today to discuss an award to promote broadband in rural parts of that state. On Tuesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack plans a trip to Ohio to discuss a stimulus project that will help a community connect to the smart grid.

“These broadband awards are what the Recovery Act is all about — not just rescuing the economy by providing immediate job opportunities through shovel-ready projects, but also rebuilding better by laying a new foundation for economic growth in communities across the country,” the White House said in a statement.

The administration has acknowledged that the stimulus funding marks only a down payment on efforts to promote universal availability and adoption of high-speed Internet service. The stimulus bill, enacted in February, also tasked the Federal Communications Commission to develop a forward-looking plan that would include policy recommendations to achieve that goal.

Yesterday, the task force putting together the plan gave the first glimpse of what the policy framework will look like when the FCC delivers the plan to Congress in February.

The task force said its operative framework would be to pursue policies that would strengthen competition in the broadband market, including complicated questions involving the rules governing how providers share access to their network infrastructure.

In the meantime, the agencies overseeing the broadband stimulus money are expected to announced the applications guidelines for the remaining funding early next year.

The Recovery Act requires NTIA and RUS to allocate all of the $7.2 billion by Sept. 30, 2010.

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