As we approach the 6-month mark on the signing of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), it seems like a good time to check in on the (from my perspective) relevant pieces of the Act. Specifically, the National Broadband Plan, the National Broadband Map, and Broadband stimulus package.
With the exception of the mapping, where I am less than thrilled so far but still hoping to see improvement, I give these things fairly high marks. That probably comes as a surprise given my recent reaction to the first iteration of the witness list for the FCC's deployment workshops and my concern that NTIA and RUS might screw up implementation of the BB stimulus money. But what most people watching this don't take into account is that the folks at NTIA and the FCC, instead of going all “bunker mentality” in the face of criticism and hunkering down, are actually doing their best to respond.
The National Broadband Plan
Take the workshops on deployment. Yes, I had concerns. But the FCC (whether in response to my comments or not) reached out before the panel to add Mark Cooper and Sascha Meinrath, who are not just from the public interest community, but have the same credentials and experience as others relevant to the panels. Mark has done lots of work with the rural members of CFA, and Sascha has helped get wireless networks set up in diverse environments from Champaign-Urbana to the Katrina devastation zone to metro-area unlicensed networks in Europe.
More importantly, when listening to the panels I was struck by the seriousness with which the participants — both FCC staff and panelists — approached the discussion. It reminded me of Michael Powell's rather successful Spectrum Task Force back in 2002, which was also a fairly serious inquiry into the then-state of wireless technology and proposed some significant reforms for both licensed and unlicensed spectrum management (the opening of the broadcast white spaces and the “licensed lite” regime in the 3.65 GHz band came out of that exercise, for example). While participants certainly had their views and perspectives, it was by and large free of grandstanding and FCC staff followed up with probing questions. It was very useful, for example, to have DSL Prime's David Burstien to give cost information he has gathered as a reporter, and therefore cannot provide his sources. It's the kind of thing staff need to hear, so that they can drill deeper and probe further.
BTOP and RUS
Similarly, while the initial notice of financial availability (NOFA) put out by BTOP and RUS looked pretty ugly, NTIA and RUS took their lumps and learned from them. At several of the initial workshops held, NTIA's Larry Strickling made it clear he intended to change things based on the experience in the first round. NTIA also published a number of clarifications in their FAQ which resolved many (but not all) of the things the cities were afraid were total killers.
Did it make everything OK? Of course not. But it demonstrated that the folks at NTIA were (a) listening, and (b) not actively trying to screw them and throw the game entirely to incumbents and usual suspects. This, in turn, encouraged a number of local governments and community organizations to go through the enormous effort of putting together applications.
Mapping, and Going Forward
Mind you, this has also cut the other way on the mapping issue. As reported by fellow PKer Art Brodsky, NTIA folded in the face of incumbent pressure and backed off some of the data demands.
So does that mean that the game is over, the fight rigged, etc.? No. Nor does the fact that I appreciate what NTIA and FCC have done in 6 months, in the face of significant obstacles and on a very aggressive timetable, blind me to their faults. Which brings me to a closing point.
While 6 months may seem an impossibly long time for folks who don't see how much work it takes to make this stuff happen, we are still fairly early in the game and the folks at NTIA and FCC are still trying to invent a process to create a National Broadband Plan, a Broadband Map, and a process for handing out a lot of money to projects trying to achieve multiple objectives. That makes the willingness to stay engaged with people, take the criticism as constructive, and actually try to learn from it, extremely important and encouraging qualities. As in all policy, every party with an interest will present its views — and the FCC and NTIA will struggle to sort them out. Hopefully, as they work the bugs out of the system, it will continue to improve, even if we do lose on some issues we care deeply about.