$7.4 billion in stimulus projects to extend broadband to poor and rural areas

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2009

The Obama administration named 18 projects Thursday that would receive a portion of the $7.4 billion in stimulus funds set aside to bring high-speed Internet to poor and rural areas that have been overlooked by Internet service providers.

Analysts say the first batch of funds suggests the federal government is targeting "middle mile" projects that may not bring lines directly to the home, but could have even greater impact by connecting entire communities that have been off the Internet grid. Bringing pipes into homes aren't always as helpful, some say, if those homes aren't connected to the Internet pipelines that connect their communities to the rest of the nation.

"Clearly the administration is viewing the middle mile as a way to have a multiplier effect on broadband distribution," said Paul Gallant, an analyst at Concept Capital in the District. "In some cases, that the is biggest choke point preventing broadband deployment to rural areas."

Indeed, of the $183 million in grants announced Thursday, $121 million go to middle-mile projects. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration and Department of Agriculture said they would give $51.4 million in grants that would directly connect homes, hospitals and schools in Minneapolis; Spokane, Wash.; and Boston. The New Mexico State Library will get $1.46 million for a project to give Hispanics and Native Americans in 15 communities training on how to use the Web, particularly for Spanish, Navajo and Pueblo-speaking populations.

Vice President Biden announced the awards during a speech in Dawsonville, Ga. The government plans to distribute about $2 billion over the next 2 1/2 months. The remainder of the $7.4 billion has been spent on mapping projects or will be distributed in a final round of grants in coming months.

"New broadband access means more capacity and better reliability in rural areas and underserved urban communities around the country. Businesses will be able to improve their customer service and better compete around the world," Biden said. "This is what the Recovery Act is all about -- sparking new growth, tapping into the ingenuity of the American people and giving folks the tools they need to help build a new economy in the 21st century."

Despite those lofty ambitions, some critics have said the process has taken too long -- stimulus money was supposed to be used to create jobs quickly, but with winter setting in, the first fiber-optic lines in many areas cannot be laid until the ground thaws in the spring.

The administration has tried to speed up the funding process by consolidating its rounds of funding from three to two. Among the projects to receive funding in this round is one for $39.7 million that would bring high-speed Internet service to about 70 rural communities in upstate New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont.

In northern Georgia, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, about $33 million is to be spent on a project to help bring the area's 40,000 homes into the high-speed Internet age.

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