Tales of the Sausage Factory

Can RUS Turn $2.5 Bn to $25 Bn? Loan Gaurantees May Work Better Than Loans or Grants.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of folks at David Isenberg’s excellent Freedom 2 Connect Conference this past week had a lot of attention focused on the stimulus. Most of the discussion has centered around NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) Rather than around the US Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Services (RUS) Program. After all, BTOP has more money ($4.7 bn to RUS’s $2.5 bn) more potentially eligible grantees, and more terms that will need definition.

But the $2.5 Bn for rural broadband is certainly nothing to sneeze at, and because of its more specific focus (rural infrastructure build rather than broader digital inclusion) and narrower set of eligible applicants, it may have greater opportunity to do some very clever things to maximize the impact of its spending. On the one hand, $2.5 Bn is more money than we have ever seen committed by the federal government to building rural broadband access infrastructure. OTOH, it is a pitifully small amount when compared to what most folks think it will take to bring meaningful broadband to rural America. Ideally, therefore, every dollar spent should stimulate more spending in this area.

Enter Geoff Daily at App-Rising, who writes this intriguing piece on how to leverage the wackiness of the financial system to our advantage (for a change). Unlike NTIA, which gives only grants, RUS can give loans and loan guarantees as well as grants. in fact, RUS has traditionally given loans and loan guarantees rather than grants. Geoff thinks this provides a way to turn the RUS $2.5 Bn into $25 bn in actual spending on rural broadband infrastructure. Unfortunately, it runs into a Dilbert-esque paradox. This is such an efficient and effective way for the government to use the money RUS is afraid that Congresscritters and pundits eager to declare the stimulus a failure will point to RUS’ “unspent” loan guarantees as a sign of waste and a failure to “spend” the money.

Fortunately, I think RUS can set up the program in a way that minimizes this risk.

More below . . .

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Posted in Tales of the Sausage Factory, The Stimulus Package (ARRA) | Also tagged , , , | 1 Comment (Comments closed)

Tales of the Sausage Factory

Why Jonathan Adelstein Totally Rocks!

It’s no big deal for a Commissioner of the FCC to go to a major trade show like NAB or the CTIA. It’s not even a surprise when Commissioners or their staff take the time to come to meetings of important constituency groups or proven political powerhouses. But who takes the time to show up to speak to a bunch of geeks and policy hackers from around the world of no particular political or financial importance? I mean, hearing about how folks in Northern India or Serbia or the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago are using unlicensed spectrum to massive improve the quality of life of their communities is nice and inspiring and all, but life is busy and time is short.

Which is why Jonathan Adelstein and his wireless advisor, Rene Crittendon, totally rock. Commissioner Adelstein and Crittendon came down yesterday to the Fourth International Summit on Community Wireless going on here in Washington D.C. You can read the gist of Commissioner Adelstein’s remarks here. I should add that I thought Adelstein’s speech as delivered was brilliant. He deftly drew together the important themes of wireless broadband, connecting people, human rights, and the benefits of digital inclusion. (If I can get a link to the speech or the audio, I will post it.)

After the speech, Adelstein stuck around to take questions and talk to folks. All in all, I think he and Renee ended up spending about two hours down here.

I have often lamented that policy makers in Washington rarely manage to get together with real people who are doing things. Even when folks come to town, it is a carefully managed “field trip” designed to maximize the effectiveness of presentation. It’s important, but it’s not the raw, unvarnished and not always polite perspective of scruffy tower-climbers and local community organizers.

No major policy initiatives, no big announcements. Heck, hardly a whisper of press coverage. But it means a lot when an FCC Commissioner and his advisor take two hours out of a busy day to come down and have an open conversation about things that people passionately believe matter.

Stay tuned . . . .

Posted in Life In The Sausage Factory, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment (Comments closed)

Tales of the Sausage Factory

Muniwifi and the Minneapolis Bridge Disaster

While the telco/cable lobbying war to make muniwifi illegal has died out (as demonstrated by the most recent defeat for the telco/cable lobbyists in North Carolina), the debate on the actual merits of munibroadband lives on. And it’s a good debate to have. States, cities and local governments should consider their projects carefully. What works in St. Cloud, Florida or Philadelphia will not necessarily work elsewhere. And, with all the possible goals of a muni system (service to residents, service to muicipalities, public safety, digital inclusion, enhance local media, economic stimulus), it is a sound idea to have figured out your benchmarks for success in advance.

Unsurprisingly, those generally opposed to government providing services (particularly where such services are available or could be available from private companies) have spent much time and effort arguing that municipal broadband projects usually end as costly failures. These analysis generally use the standard economic criteria of a for-profit business. i.e., Does the network pay for itself over expected time?

That’s an important question, particularly if a government has made this a goal of buiding the network or if you are a private business looking at a public/private partnership. But governments often make investments in infrastructure or provide services on a residential or subscription basis for other reasons. Here in DC, for example, no one pretends that the City will directly make back the hundreds of millions of dollars spent to attract a professional baseball team. This cost gets justified on the grounds that it will revitalize the Anacostia waterfront area, serve as a source of civic pride, and offer additional benefits that justify the cost.

Which brings us to the performance of Minneapolis muniwifi network in the recent bridge collapse diaster. The presence of the network proved an enormous boon to public safety and the citizens of Minneapolis. Because the city had deployed the network for residential service, it was there when they needed it for public safety. That’s difficult to capture in a balance sheet, but there’s no doubt you’re damn glad to have it when you need it.

Of course, local governments can always build public safety muni networks. And many do. But multiple use networks (like the Minneapolis one) are a good way to fund such networks, make sure they get fully deployed, and make sure they stay upgraded and operational. A town reluctant to spend money on public safety communications (and many are) may feel better if the public safety network will also provide low-cost connectivity to poorer neighborhoods. Alternatively, a town might feel better about providing residential services at a possible financial loss if they look on the network as also providing critical infrastructure for emergencies.

At the end of the day, every local or state government looking at municipal broadband needs to do a careful evaluation and figure out what it wants and how it will pay for it. The business case is an important piece of that, especially if local governments promise their citizens the network will end up paying for itself with subscriber fees. But the tragedy in Minneapolis provides an important reminder that local governments have other measures of success besides turning a profit.

Stay tuned . . . .

Posted in Spectrum, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments (Comments closed)

Tales of the Sausage Factory

Markey to Take Telecom Subcommittee

Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) has confirmed he will take the Telecom Subcommittee rather than seek chairmanship of the Resources Committee.

I can’t think of better news to close out 2006. Ed Markey displays that rare, brilliant combination of staying true to his principles at all times while still working well in coalition and with his counterparts accross the aisle. On just about every issue I can think of: net neutrality, media ownership, privacy, fair use, consumer protection, digital inclusion, Ed Markey has been a champion and leader.

Whoooooo Hoooooooooo!!!!!!!!

Stay tuned!

Posted in Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments (Comments closed)
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