WATTSBURG, Pa. (AP) – Vice President Joe Biden outlined a $4.7 billion loan and grant program Wednesday to develop the infrastructure needed to deliver broadband, or high-speed, Internet access to areas that are underserved or without access.
The $4.7 billion is part of $7.2 billion included in the federal stimulus package to improve rural Internet access.
The Commerce and Agriculture Departments on Wednesday published the criteria they will use to judge funding applications. They will consider projects that provide wired or wireless access starting at low-end DSL speeds but will give priority to ones promising higher speeds. They'll consider an area "underserved" by broadband, and thus eligible for grants, if half or fewer of the households can get wired broadband today, among other criteria.
Applicants can begin applying on July 14. The first round of funding will be awarded in September. Besides providing money to create the infrastructure, the funding can also go toward training people to use the Internet.
The Department of Agriculture’s RUS program will have $2.4 billion of the $7.2 billion total to carry out the purposes of its Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP). Out of the $2.4 billion, the agency allocated up to $800 million in loans and loan/grant combinations for middle-mile projects.
At the same time, as part of the Department of Commerce’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the agency set aside $1.2 billion to fund projects within the Broadband Infrastructure category, which consists of two components – last mile and middle mile.
Those middle-mile allocations were in accord with the wishes of the American Cable Association, which had advocated for money to be dedicated to go to such projects.
The so-called middle-mile connects local broadband networks to Internet access points that are often positioned miles apart from each other. End-user download speeds in rural areas would be much faster if local broadband providers had access to affordable, high-speed middle-mile facilities, the ACA explained.
ACA President and CEO Matthew Polka said, “Seeing now how the programs will be administrated, I expect that small- and medium-sized cable operators will apply for funding to build both middle-mile and last-mile projects.”
Meanwhile, National Cable & Telecommunications Association President and CEO Kyle McSlarrow said his organization is set to review the rules so that it can advise its constituents. “We look forward to working closely with Congress, the administration and the FCC to ensure that more American consumers have access to, and benefit from, robust broadband service,” he said.
Biden gave his address at a high school here. He was joined by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski and U.S. Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Pa.) as part of a "rural America tour."
Genachowski, in some of his first public remarks as head of the FCC, asked for more public input on the Broadband Plan the FCC is responsible for developing. He said: “Over the next few months, the FCC will host a national discussion about the design of this plan – around the country and online. Please get involved. Tell us about the needs of your community and your hopes and aspirations for the National Broadband Plan. This is about those who we risk leaving behind if we don’t pursue a national broadband strategy.”
In 2007 and 2008, the Pew Internet and American Life Project asked households that lacked broadband why they haven't signed up. Lack of availability was ranked fourth, given by 14 percent. Most answered that they didn't need the Internet, that it was too expensive or too hard to use. Many people who don't use the Internet simply don't have computers.
About 95 percent of households can already get broadband, according to the NCTA. But the industry hasn't been very forthcoming in saying exactly where it's available, and that's part of what the stimulus package wants to address — it has allocated $350 million to mapping out U.S. broadband access.
America lags behind more than a dozen other countries in terms of Internet access, and that has to change, Biden told about 200 people at Seneca High School, about 12 miles east of Erie.
"The bottom line is, you can't function – a nation can't compete in the 21st century – without an immediate, high-quality access for everything from streaming video to information overline," Biden said.
While Seneca has broadband Internet access, Biden said many students do not have access at home.
Providing the means for access would improve educational opportunities, he said. He also spoke of the power of the Internet to create jobs in rural America.
"We believe we are in the process of transforming rural America ... so it's integrated with the country, without losing its character," he said. The program also covers inner-city areas without broadband access.
"Getting broadband to every American is a priority for this administration," Biden said.
"Broadband is not just about being able to Google faster. It's not merely a luxury or an option for entertainment. It is an essential tool in today's world," Dahlkemper said.
– Brian Santo contributed to this report