by Russ Steele
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was signed into law on February 17, 2009. The Broadband Initiative funded in the Act was intended to accelerate broadband deployment in unserved, underserved, and rural areas and to strategic institutions that are likely to create jobs or provide significant public benefits.
SEDCorp, the sponsor for the Gold County Broadband Consortia host a series of meetings to promote the initiative and encouraged the wireless internet providers (ISPs) in the GCBC service area ( Sierra County, Nevada County, Placer County, El Dorado County and Eastern Alpine County) to submit proposals. Of the nine ISPs who attended these meetings, all but one decided to pass on the opportunity. For many the workload and timeline were beyond their capacity to prepare a compliant proposal, others rejected the idea of seeking government funding with long strings attached. SmarterBroadband Submitted a proposal that was developed in part by a vendor that was working with the ISP. The proposal for 2.3 million dollars to build out wireless networks in Western Nevada County was approved.
The request for proposals document was about 3/4 of an inch thick with provisions requiring financial audits, documents certified by the corporate legal department and maps that were rendered as GIS shapefiles. Most of the small ISP did their books on open source (free on the web) accounting software no accounting department, they did not even have a legal council on retainer, or the capacity to produce shape files.
Also, the RFP had an American buy clause which limited the equipment that could be used in the proposal. The requirement was waived late in the proposal cycle, long passed the decision cycle for small ISPs. These were the obstacles that all nine ISPs faced in meeting the goals for accelerating broadband deployment and the creation of new jobs. Only one of the nine ISPs found a solution to these road blocks.
I have written Congressional Offices representing the GCBC Counties and asked for their help in alerting the FCC/NTIA/USDA staffs that they need to consider the staffing limitation of small mom and pop ISPs. There are the ISPs which are filling the gaps left by the big telecommunication providers if the government was serious about extending rural broadband. Congressman McClintock office was not interested in the problem. On the other hand, Congressman La Malfa and his staff were most helpful and provided this reply:
Thanks for the comments Russell. This is really helpful when going forward with any future rural broadband initiatives/language that could be included as part of the incoming infrastructure bill. Efforts to streamline the process will definitely be looked at more closely. I can reach out to someone at the liaison’s office and discuss some of these issues with them. Otherwise, it will probably be fairly costly and time consuming to travel to the Sierra Counties to see some of these concerns firsthand. However, if any such opportunity arises I think it would be a great way to see these challenges up front.
And this comment
Just wanted to let you know that the Congressman plans on asking several questions regarding ways to improve access to rural broadband in today’s House Agriculture Committee Hearing regarding the Farm Credit System.
When it is time for comments on the draft RFP, I will once again express my concern that consideration should be given to the small ISP that are filling the broadband gaps left by the big telecommunication companies: wireline, cable, and cellular. Even though my voice will be drowned out by the Telco lobbyist, who are “assisting” in the RFP preparation. From the large Telco’s perspective the more obstacles the small competitors have to face the better for them, as eliminating competition is the name of the game.
I will be writing on this issue throughout the broadband proposal process. There is a lot the rural broadband consortia can do to help spread the word about this point. Hundreds of comment from rural ISPs would be far more potent than a single voice from an unknown consultant. The broadband consortia should be organizing their ISPs and coordinating a message for the FCC/NTIA/USDA about the administrative obstacles which will only delay the desired rapidly expanding of rural broadband.