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The Todd County Standard in Elkton, Kentucky has run a series of articles on the need for high-speed broadband in rural areas like Todd County. Recently, though, the issues has made it to the paper’s editorial pages.

From the Rural Blog:

In an editorial this month, the paper said that “despite the best efforts” of the top county official and the county’s two state legislators, the county still lacks broadband and is “losing the race toward the future” even though Kentucky leads the nation in funding from the Broadband Inititatives Program of the Department of Agriculture.

The editorial points fingers at the main local phone company, AT&T, and federal policy. “Some experts have complained that one large flaw in President Obama’s rural broadband plan is that large companies like AT&T have not sought out the broadband funding since it wouldn’t be enough of a profit center.” The editorial suggests a stronger federal role, much like the one that brought electricity to rural areas during the Great Depression: “Why don’t we have a government that provides the service at a low cost and gives some honest competition to the telephone and cable providers?” I

The millions of federal stimulus dollars going toward expanding broadband may not be properly protected. That’s according to a report from the Department of Commerce’s Inspector General and a recent Politico story:

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the agency that has been managing the program, isn’t doing enough to monitor how grantees are spending the stimulus money, the report finds. The Inspector General also pointed out flaws with the program’s internal processes. For example, NTIA staff needs more training in using the technology systems developed by outside contractor Booz Allen Hamilton to monitor the program’s winners.

“This transfer of IT knowledge is of particular concern because NTIA is a relatively small-staffed agency charged with the execution of a major program, and it has relied heavily on the expertise and capabilities of (Booze Allen Hamilton) in virtually every aspect” of the program, the report said.

NTIA is running the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, which distributed $4 billion of the roughly $7 billion in stimulus dollars put aside for broadband expansion efforts. NTIA awarded Booze Allen Hamilton $98 million to help with administration work.

A major hurdle for the agency’s oversight is the fact that Congress did not allocate sufficient funds to manage the program after Dec. 3. Still, the report argues there are alternative ways NTIA can ensure the program is effective. Besides increasing oversight of its contract with Booz Allen Hamilton, other recommendations include completing tasks more quickly and clearly outlining responsibilities for other agencies that support NTIA’s grants program.

We’ve discussed the potential benefits of expanded broadband access and the need for oversight in previous posts.

It’s already been reported that politicians (governors, Senators, etc) who opposed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the stimulus) have welcomed stimulus funds into their states. But now, Public Integrity blows the story open with a long report on how stimulus opponents “sought money out of public view.”

Scores of Republicans and conservative Democrats who voted against the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act subsequently wrote letters requesting funds for projects in a massive, behind-the-scenes letter-writing and phone call campaign, documents obtained by the Center show.

Those asking for money include Tea Party favorites like freshman Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., former presidential candidates Ron Paul and John McCain and Republican congressional leaders like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana.

Many Democratic leaders who had boasted they prevented lawmakers from inserting special spending requests in the stimulus law when it passed also engaged in the behind-the-scenes letter writing to secure funding afterwards, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Included in the reporting are PDF files of letters lawmakers sent requesting stimulus funds for certain projects. Look in the sidebar on the article for links to letters from Kentucky Senators Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning.

Seven billion federal dollars have been given out to help telecoms build high speed broadband networks (we’ve written about one post for each dollar awarded), but the government may not have the ability to make sure the money is being properly spent.

From Politico:

The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, one of the agencies leading the charge, initially expected Congress to set aside millions of dollars for oversight when the stimulus program expired Sept. 30.

But lawmakers haven’t voted on President Barack Obama’s proposed 2011 budget, which called for roughly $24 million to help keep tabs on award winners. And while Congress is in the throes of approving a bill this week designed to keep the government running until December, that proposal lacks the relief NTIA sought.

Federal programs designed to expand broadband internet access took a hit recently. The FCC has been mapping high-speed internet availability, and last week, the definition of high-speed was changed.

The previous definition was 200 kilobits per second. That isn’t fast enough to handle modern web tasks like watching videos. The new standard is 4 megabits per second. One megabit is 1024 kilobits, so the new high-speed is about 20 times faster than the old high-speed.

With the redefinition, many Americans–including lots of Kentuckians–are now no longer considered to have high-speed access. As CNN reports, bringing people with connections between 200 kbps and 4 mbps up to speed will not be easy.

Between 14 million and 24 million Americans still lack access to broadband internet, and “immediate prospects for deployment to them are bleak,” said the U.S. Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday.

This newly pessimistic stance contradicted previous statements by the FCC, which had said that high-speed internet service was being made available to all Americans in a timely fashion.

The article goes on to mention that service providers say it isn’t economically feasible to lay broadband cables in rural areas. The revenue from normal rates isn’t enough to finance the extra infrastructure. Some industry analysts have speculated that ISPs need commercial customers in rural areas. The higher bills paid by businesses would make expansion more cost-effective. Others, however, argue that broadband should be a utility, and should be subsidized to a degree.

Still others are looking for ways to expand access without laying miles of cable. This could include satellite and long-range (as in longer range than your home router) wireless. Some of this technology is at work in parts of Kentucky. I talked with the people behind it two years ago.

(via The Rural Blog)

It’s more than a year later and the federal stimulus package is still drawing criticism from its opponents. But the New York Times reports that the least controversial part of the legislation may end up being the money allocated to improving broadband access.

The $7.2 billion to extend broadband service in the last stimulus package was approved without significant debate. The program is intended to extend broadband service to what is known as the “middle mile,” which can connect to institutions like schools and hospitals, and the “last mile” — homes and businesses — that big Internet providers have bypassed because the expected revenue was too small to justify the big investments needed.

For some of the beneficiaries, the program will literally mean the difference between isolation and being connected to the rest of the world. “If you don’t have a high-speed Internet connection, it’s almost impossible to get anything done anymore,” said Martin Cary, vice president of broadband services for GCI Communication Corporation of Alaska, the largest Internet service provider in the state.

Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said he saw the extension of Internet service as a significant moment in communications. “Extending broadband in rural America is as important to jobs and growth in the 21st century as extending electricity was in the 20th century,” he said.

But while a new medium for commerce and communication can bring a new way of life to areas, that doesn’t mean it’s entirely positive. The article points out that some rural business owners and ISPs are worried about competition in the aftermath of connections.

James W. Rowh, for instance, who owns an organic farm and natural foods store not far from the Wegeners in Norton, Kan., is wary that the Internet will lure his customers away. “You can find pretty deep discounts online,” he said. “There are only 3,000 people in this town. When you start losing people to the Internet, it’s going to have an effect on your bottom line.”

Even the small companies that have been awarded the grants and loans to extend the broadband fiber lines and build the microwave towers are aware that once they do all the work and sign up the customers, the big carriers may move in with lower rates and lure their business away.

(via)

The U.S. Government has awarded more than one billion dollars to improve broadband access and service. (PDF report) The money came in the form of loans and grants and went to 68 projects in 31 states, including Kentucky and Indiana.

The projects were of three types:

1. Thirteen last-mile remote projects ($161 million) will provide broadband service to households and other end users located at least 50 miles from the nearest nonrural area. These represent 19 percent of the awards and 15 percent of the total dollars awarded.

2. Forty-nine last-mile non-remote projects ($739 million) will provide broadband service to households and other end users in rural areas located less than 50 miles from the nearest nonrural area. These represent 72 percent of the awards and 69 percent of the total dollars awarded.

3. Six middle-mile projects ($167 million) will provide necessary “backbone” services such as interoffice transport, backhaul, Internet connectivity, or special access to rural areas. These represent 9 percent of the awards and 16 percent of the total dollars awarded.

And here is a chart for how the money was distributed:

Two projects in Indiana and one in Kentucky received funding. In Kentucky, about 80 million dollars (roughly half loan and half grant) will go to Mountain RTCC:

Mountain RTCC will deploy a fiber cable-based broadband network in Morgan, Menifee, Wolfe, and Elliott Counties of Kentucky. This network will provide over 20 Mbps bandwidth to end users. Mountain RTCC will bring affordable broadband access to these counties to enhance economic development and workforce training.

The Rural Utility Service says the projects “will bring broadband service to 529,249 households, 92,754 businesses, and 3,332 anchor institutions across more than 172,000 square miles.”

These community anchors, such as schools, libraries, healthcare providers, colleges, and critical community facilities, provide essential services for the safety, health, education, and well-being of residents. Without the BIP funding, such services would be cost-prohibitive in some communities. These projects also overlap with 19 Tribal lands. Last Mile Middle Total Non-remote Mile

The Round One awards will create approximately 5,000 immediate and direct jobs. Although it is difficult to calculate, the estimated number of jobs that will be created will bring long-term economic development opportunities to each 20 rural community where a broadband project is implemented.

Vice President Joe Biden is coming to Louisville next week. He was invited by Congressman John Yarmuth (D-3). Here’s the story:

Vice President Joe Biden will visit Louisville and southern Indiana next week.

Biden was invited by Congressman John Yarmuth to tour GE’s Appliance Park, where stimulus dollars have been used to hire 400 new workers to manufacture energy-efficient appliances.

Biden was already scheduled to attend a fundraiser for Congressman Baron Hill in Jeffersonville, and Yarmuth says he decided to seize the opportunity.

“Well we knew he was going to be in the neighborhood and we said, ‘Why don’t you come over and visit GE because this is something you can crow about.’ It’s a true success story with the stimulus initiative,” he says.

Biden is in charge of overseeing the distribution of federal stimulus dollars. He will not make any public address while in Louisville.

A new report from government business intelligence firm Onvia rates Kentucky among the “laggard” states in distributing federal stimulus dollars.

Business First has response from the Governor’s office:

Kentucky ranked No. 38 in per capita stimulus dollars awarded with $811 in federal dollars for every Kentuckian.

The state ranked No. 34 in “velocity,” which Onvia defined as the projects actually awarded to contractors by the state, divided by the total funding received by the state from the federal government.

Onvia ranked Kentucky among the “laggard” states, the lowest of Onvia’s four rankings for effectiveness in stimulus spending. The highest ranking was “gold,” followed by “silver” and “bronze.”

Indiana also ranked among the laggards, with $821 per capita stimulus spending and a velocity rate of 9.7, which was below Kentucky’s rate of 10.3. States in the gold ranking had velocity rates greater than 25.

Kerri Richardson, the deputy communications director for Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, said that the state is working to distribute stimulus funding as quickly as it can, “under the many rules the federal government has imposed.”

“These projects require multiple reports to both state and federal agencies, and the federal government must approve all contract awards, both of which can prolong the award process,” Richardson said in an e-mail.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment act isn’t just fixing streets, it’s cleaning them up. (How’s that for a movie trailer line?)

Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada and New Mexico have been given stimulus grants from the Justice Department to fight meth. The grants will fund two years of salary for state methamphetamine coordinators. The coordinators will work within their state and across borders with their counterparts to fight meth use.

The Rural Blog has more.

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