Government groups or non-profit consortiums that bring private companies and government entities together may be the big winners whenstimulus awards are announced in early November. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), along with the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) program, is granting and loaning $7.2 billion in stimulus money to bring broadband to unserved and underserved areas. The first-round recipients will receive $4 billion, with the government releasing the remaining funds in 2010.
With 2,200 entities applying for nearly $28 billion in stimulus money from both the NTIA and the RUS, the first round was significantly over-subscribed. Applications came from a range of parties including state, local and tribal governments; non-profits; industry; and public-safety organizations, according to NTIA. A number of the applications propose a mixed-use capability, whereby consumers,and other government functions benefit.
NTIA asked Governors' offices and state broadband program officials to recommend first round project funding in their states. Their support for local government-run or nonprofits created for public-private partnerships runs from 30 percent to 50 percent, says Craig Settles, founder of Successful.com.
Indeed, a number of groups around the country are forming at the local, state and regional level and consist of disparate entities — anchor institutions, such as colleges, hospitals, libraries, counties and towns — brought together by the need for broadband connectivity and mobilized by the promise of federal stimulus money. Many are planning to build and share networks, often in cooperation with the private sector.
"I think partnering with institutional stakeholders such as libraries, hospitals and schools will be key," Settles says. "There are a number of governor's recommendations for proposals that focus heavily on wiring institutions. If these get funding, and the FCC gives credibility to the strategy as potentially being part of our national broadband strategy, there will be a rush by applicants in the next funding round to have this element in their proposals."
Joel McCamley, senior vice president and division manager of telecommunications and technology services for L. Robert Kimball Associates advised his clients to bring as many stakeholders to the table as possible. His firm is currently advising a number of state agencies and helped craft 20 applications that are requesting approximately $450 million in total stimulus funds.
"We saw an opportunity to link up our public-safety clients with other entities, whether they are private or additional public agencies to stretch that dollar as much as possible," McCamley says. "The more anchor institutions our clients could bring in the fold, we felt the better their chances were in having a better application."
Mass.-based OpenCape found strength in numbers when it formed to address broadband issues in their communities. Dan Gallagher, Cape Cod Community College's executive IT director, began looking for ways to improve broadband connectivity four years ago and joined forces with others frustrated by the lack of bandwidth, including municipalities, public schools, colleges and hospitals. OpenCape secured $200,000 in seed funding and then asked for $32 million in federal stimulus money with another $8 million coming from matching funds from various government funds and its infrastructure partner, RCN Metro Optical Networks.
OpenCape has proposed creating a regional data center, 350 miles of fiber optic cable covering Cape Cod and connecting to existing fiber backbones in Boston and Rhode Island and 50 miles of laterals into anchor institutions that include research centers, libraries, municipal government buildings, colleges and K-12 schools. The plan also includes a microwave wireless network spanning the cape and points beyond to provide a backup in emergencies.
"We are connecting all of the libraries as part of our initial build," Gallagher says. "Laterals are already built for emergency evacuation and schools. We have designed the path of the middle mile [the fiber optic cable] to make sure it passes in front of town halls, fire departments and police."
Any commercial provider or private entity can connect to the network, which Gallagher hopes will encourage private companies and others to connect to it. "What makes us unique is that we are both commercial and public," Gallagher says. "The reason we created this model is that if you are going to sustain a network, it really has to have the backing of the private sector to replace, repair and expand the network."
While OpenCape aims to pool the needs of the 15 towns on the cape by increasing their bandwidth, it also seeks to deliver common applications and a regional umbrella of services. For instance, each of the towns runs their own(GIS), Gallagher says. OpenCape would consolidate them into a regional system that would reside on one shared server, so the towns can split the costs. Moreover, the project aims to create an intercity wide area network so members can share other common applications. Libraries, for instance, can be interconnected using the WAN to share resources and network costs. Schools can access a common learning management system.
Already, Massachusetts is counting on the network to make up the southwest loop of the statewide network it wants to establish for public safety and government services, Gallagher says. Projects like OpenCape are sprouting up in response to not only end-user needs, but also the promise of stimulus funds, and Gallagher believes the opportunity is ripe for government entities to find one near them.
Lynnette Luna is a contributing writer to Urgent Communications, a sister publication to Government Product News.