Closer look at broadband initiatives program reveals opportunity for broadcasters

Here’s a health plan that everybody can agree on: the plan to get our national data infrastructure healthy. The initiative to extend broadband services into rural and underserved urban areas is underway, providing many more people with access to quality Internet connections, and video streaming improvements will come along with them. Not so obvious, however, are the commercial prospects of the initiative. What does all of this mean to broadcasters, news organizations and video producers?

The Rural Utilities Service (RUS) within the U.S. Department of Agriculture has kicked off its Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP) using funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. On July 1, 2009, the RUS released the first notice of funds availability.

This program is part of a larger initiative named the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), a collaboration of Congress, the White House, the USDA, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the FCC. About $4 billion of program–level funding was allocated to the initial round by the RUS and NTIA. Up to $2.4 billion of the BIP money will be awarded through the first round of funding. A total estimated $7 billion to $9 billion will be allocated in the combined programs. Respondents for the money must demonstrate the ability to create jobs and stimulate economic growth. The RUS will make loans, loan guarantees and outright grants to groups looking to participate in the program.

Some additional insight into the government’s intentions:

  • Some $28 million has been applied for by all 50 states for broadband mapping and planning. Grants have already been given to Indiana, Vermont, California and North Carolina.
  • Up to $1.2 billion is earmarked for last-mile projects, those that will extend broadband outright to users who have little or no current access.
  • Up to $800 million is allocated for loans or loan and grant combinations for middle-mile projects, those intended to provide for underserved urban markets.
  • Similar to every land rush, the government received $28 billion in requests for its $4 billion. Another $3 billion to $5 billion in funding will become available in a second round.

There have been some conflicts surrounding the definition of broadband: Some proffer that less than 1Mb/s DSL services are sufficient; others envision full FTTH; still others want to bathe entire communities in WiFi. The FCC is scheduled to settle that argument Feb. 17, 2010, but some compromises are definitely in the offing.

To establish a consumer broadband service, a high-capacity backbone will need to be built out to approach any market. Normal installations in markets that are rich with potential subscribers also have fairly rich data infrastructures. The underserved markets are underserved for a reason. Broadband providers need to recoup their investment.

The government subsidies will help relieve part of the cost for infrastructure buildout to the less populated areas. The coincidental benefit is that those high-capacity lines will be within reach of facilities in the city and town centers of those smaller markets, right where the broadcasting facilities are located. Today, many stations are burdened with extraordinarily high data charges (sometimes for less service than I have at home in Dallas). Broadcasters will finally have access to higher-capacity bandwidth, and the providers will be thrilled to make some revenue on the commercial side.

Contemplate all of the uses we could make of high-quality data lines. We could use landline connections for things like sharing news content, audio and graphics between sister facilities; conducting collaborative editing with talent spread all over the country; and carrying out commercial, promo and program distribution.

This technology may even make it possible to break satellite’s exclusivity as a national interconnect.

Smaller-market broadcasters have been working under the same “broadband-have-not” handicap as their viewers. Here’s a government program that has nearly universal, bipartisan support. I encourage you to dig deeper into the issue to determine how you could potentially benefit from this initiative. You might even be inclined to express your support to your congressional representative.

If you’d like to follow the proceedings, check out these sites: