Last week, the federal agencies involved in the broadband stimulus program held four public meetings to solicit comments about the broadband initiative under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. (For more, click here.)

The $7.2 billion allocated for broadband stimulus will be distributed in the form of grants and loans, with the first round of distributions possibly coming as early as this summer. Originally, it was expected that the monies would be spent on expanding broadband service to rural areas. (For more, click here.)

Matt Polka, president and CEO of the American Cable Association, was on the panel at the March 18 meeting to discuss the definition of underserved and vulnerable populations.

"A lot of the language focuses on rural," Polka said. "But there are some legitimate points as to what underserved areas are. A lot of the interests were from urban groups."

Many of the ACA’s members are interested in bringing broadband to rural underserved areas, but backhaul issues prevent them.

"The vast majority of our nearly 1,000 members have technically created their systems to provide next generation broadband – higher speed," Polka said. "But they cannot because of limited backhaul in their areas. They usually have T-1 access from one of the big phone companies. That backbone is the only one available. More fiber Internet backbone would help lower connectivity cost."

Some areas are so remote that it would not be cost-effective to build cable plant there. In those situations, wireless could be used to reach the last distance.

"Wireless providers were at the meetings also," said Polka. "They see this as a big opportunity."

The meetings continue today and tomorrow to discuss how the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utility Services (RUS) should design and implement the spending programs.

Polka said in the past, RUS has not been open to giving loans to providers other than telecom, and the NTIA has no prior experience giving loans or grants to broadband providers.

"There’s a sincere desire to listen, but $7.2 billion is not a lot to do all the things that people want," he said.

The public can view the meetings and post comments at www.ntia.doc.gov/broadbandgrants. Comments must be submitted by April 13.

– Linda Hardesty

Read more news and analysis on Communications Technology‘s Web site at www.cable360.net/ct/news/.

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