Access goals hitch ride at light speed

Pubcasters apply for stimulus grants to develop broadband

By Dru Sefton

Fiber optics (Photo: Sandia National Lab)

Pubcasters joined more than 2,000 first-round applicants racing to pitch their broadband dreams for funding from the telecom piece of the government’s stimulus outlay.

They’re volunteering for the Obama administration’s push to extend broadband access to unserved and underserved communities. Among bids from pubcasters:

PBS seeks $8.7 million for a Broadband Communities initiative to expand its Digital Learning Library for schools, encourage public use of its video portal and establish broadband education outreach.

Florida Public Broadcasting requests $22.8 million for a statewide high-speed HELPS (Health, Education, Local, Public Safety) Network.

The National Black Programming Consortium put in for $11.5 million to build on the media skills training of its Public Media Corps.

With the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Congress is funneling $7.2 billion through two cabinet-level agencies.

Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service focuses its Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP) on rural areas, and Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration handles all stripes of unserved or underserved areas through its Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP).

The administration hopes projects resulting from the outlays will create jobs, prompt investment in technology and infrastructure and spark long-term economic benefits.

And pubcasters aim to serve new users and create helpful services by expanding people’s access to broadband Internet connections.

In this first round of funding, NTIA will award around $1.6 billion. Up to $1.2 billion will go for broadband infrastructure, $150 million for projects promoting broadband demand and affordability (education, awareness, training), and $50 million for public computer centers.

NTIA opened its process July 1, releasing rules and holding workshops. PBS, the Florida stations and the National Black Programming Consortium dove into the first wave.

Applicants slogged through stacks of paperwork, tried to decipher 121 pages of federal requirements, carefully worded their proposals and, in many cases, assembled partnerships to bolster their chances—all in six weeks.

With a huge surge of applications coming and NTIA’s computers balking, the agency postponed its deadline from Aug. 14 to Aug. 20.

Jacquieline Jones, executive director of the black programming consortium, said the schedule was a memorably “tight timeline.”

“It was so overwhelming,” she said. Who could apply? What precisely are the feds looking for? How would “sustainable adoption” be measured? The government wants to make sure the projects will continue after the grants are spent.

Would-be grantees are still figuring out why and how to tap into the massive pool of stimulus cash. Peter Pratt, a longtime broadband policy analyst, consultant and advocate, has spoken with pubstations about the opportunity. “They don’t quite know how to approach this,” he said. “But their attitude is, this is a sandbox we want to play in.”

PBS’s new umbrella

The feds came up with grant categories to address key broadband objectives:

  • assuring that projects will be economically sustainable after the grants end,
  • delivering service to underserved or unserved communities, either directly to homes and institutions (“last mile”) or to intermediate data hubs (“middle mile”)
  • creating or bolstering public computer centers to give unserved or underserved citizens direct broadband access to the Internet.

PBS took on sustainability. Eric Wolf, the network’s executive, technology strategy and planning, said PBS Broadband Communities encompasses plans to extend the PBS Digital Learning Library and PBS Interactive’s station platforms, including the COVE portal. A new project, the Broadband Education Outreach initiative, would provide the public with information about broadband usage, particularly in communities that now find it difficult or impossible to access the high-speed network.

Each element takes a different approach to sustainability, Wolf said. The Digital Learning Library asks educators to subscribe. Broadband Communities would provide free service to schools for two years and then phase in fees.

Like many of the applicants, PBS is partnering up. Eight stations are involved: KCET in Los Angeles; KLRN in San Antonio, Tex.; the Utah Education Network; WVIZ in Cleveland; South Carolina ETV; Vegas PBS; WHRO in Norfolk, Va.; and WPSU at Penn State University. Those stations “had strong experience in education and represented a wide cross-section of geography and demography of audience served,” Wolf said. While many other stations could have been chosen, he added, “we needed to keep the group relatively small to make it workable in a short time.” A second-round application will add station partners.

PBS sees the stations developing relationships with community institutions (schools, libraries, other nonprofits) to deliver aggregated PBS content to the public. Both the DLL and COVE are projects that exist on their own, but their wider deployment is limited by resources at stations and PBS.  “Receiving the grant would enable these technologies to be more widely adopted sooner,” Wolf said.

For the new Broadband Education and Outreach program, stations will work with stakeholders to get educational materials about the benefits of broadband out to institutions and individuals, focusing on those all-important technologically underserved and unserved areas, Wolf said.

Identifying specific stations or pubcasting partnerships that applied for funding is difficult. The online database of first-round requests (broadbandusa.gov) includes many multiple-partner projects but lists only the lead applicant.

Wolf said PBS also doesn’t have any aggregated numbers. “In general, most of the station activities we’re aware of are where stations are part of proposals by local and state governments or similar organizations.”

A few other pubcasting applicants include Wyoming PBS, asking for $513,000 to create a state-focused Digital Learning Library; Northeastern Educational Television of Ohio, going after $1.7 million for statewide broadband use training; and Mississippi Public Broadcasting, which wants $2.2 million for its Mississippi Child Care Centers Broadband Technologies Program that targets low-income youngsters.

A natural in this arena

Pratt sees public broadcasting as a logical assistant in the fed’s desire to connect more Americans to high-speed access.

“Part of the great thing about the government being involved is it brings out folks in constituencies that might not otherwise be tied in to the telecom sector,” said Pratt, who runs the StimulatingBroadband.com site that tracks broadband stimulus provisions. Some participants bring support for populist policies that harken back to the era of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, with interest in such issues as accessibility.

For instance, he cites involvement of the National Center for Accessible Media at WGBH. It was a party to White House and NTIA meetings early this year, pushing for rules requiring the broadband projects to be accessible to users with disabilities — and helping applicants to plan accessible projects.

“PBS is part and parcel of so much of federal communications policy and aspects of community access,” Pratt added.

Florida Public Broadcasting, a nonprofit group of 13 pubTV and 13 pubradio stations, is eager to provide increased community access through a new statewide public-service delivery network, HELPS (Health, Education, Local, Public Safety). The stations already reach 99 percent of the state’s population, the proposal says. By hooking into the Florida LambdaRail high-speed backbone, the network can offer “greater educational and healthcare initiatives, faster delivery of K-12 content, improved eldercare outreach and deploy public safety applications.”

The push into broadband is a “natural transition” for pubcasting, said FPB’s Chief Operating Officer Janyth Righter. “It’s not traditional broadcasting but works well with a lot of our mission. It provides service that can become more detailed.”

Getting there is a tad pricey. Righter said the application process alone cost the broadcasters more than $30,000. That included hiring an engineer to determine how to physically connect stations into the next-generation Florida LambdaRail. It’s part of National LambdaRail, a nationwide 12,000-mile advanced optical network infrastructure initiative.

The National Black Programming Consortium seeks to reach 3 million Americans in more than 15 markets during the first two years of its Public Media Corps. Two hundred facilitators would be trained to link underserved communities to broadband technologies through public media. The corps grows out of NBPC’s New Media Institute, which, since 2006, has helped hundreds of documentary producers move into multiplatform work.

NBPC would adapt its plans to needs of communities, as in the case of many city-dwellers who haven’t warmed up to broadband. “The strategy is to develop mobile tools that are broadband-adjacent,” said Jones, head of the group. “We’ll start on cell phones and ultimately bring them into the online environment. We’ll meet people where they are.”

NBPC is working with American University to develop tool kits to help those facilitators think of ways to extend pubstation content into more community settings and mobile devices on issues such as job readiness and economic survival. It’s developing relationships with stations including WGBH in Boston, WPBT in Miami, WYBE in Philadelphia and Public Broadcasting Atlanta.

Altamont or Woodstock?

Of course, none of these plans will unfold unless the dreamers actually score a grant. Pubcasting nonprofits are up against a vast variety of companies and agencies, including cities, public universities, school districts, public housing agencies and for-profits such as Zito Media Communications, which provides cable TV, Internet and digital voice services to several counties in central and north central Pennsylvania. It’s going after $12.5 million for a 710-mile fiber optic ring through rural areas to provide high-bandwidth services.

So how will all this shake out, with commercial and nonprofit entities competing for the same funds? No clue just yet. Pratt identifies two distinct forces: On one side, community and public network enthusiasts, buoyed by think-tank allies in Washington; on the other, major cable and big telecom firms with trade associations and lobbyist advocates in the capital.

“It’s another key issue in this space,” Pratt noted. “Is broadband stimulus Woodstock or Altamont? We have two subcultures coming together, fighting over this money.”

Pratt thinks many public media supporters envision a type of Woodstock, “broadband for noble farmers and deserving urban community groups” paid for by the fed, “the 21st century technology-enabled flowering of civic engagement.” But big telecoms often gripe that community-minded groups “are impractical, don’t understand the business, or will waste public funds.” That’s Altamont, where Woodstock’s peace-and-love era dissolved into a harshly imperfect world.

NTIA says it expects to announce funding decisions from this round, which generated around 2,200 requests for about $28 billion, beginning early in the fall, possibly by later this month. The first awards should be distributed in November.

Lawrence Strickling, NTIA’s administrator, testified Sept. 10 before the House telecom subcommittee that the agency is considering combining the second and third application rounds. That would let the agency complete the process in summer 2010 instead of fall, providing funds more quickly, he said. Accepting just one more round of apps also would save administrative costs and give applicants more time to develop partnerships for projects, he added.

EARLIER ARTICLES

Pivotal decisions ahead on public TV’s fiber future:
APTS goal: free or discount carriage on the infohighway,
May 1992. Current reported: “Decisions made in this coming period will be pivotal in fulfilling the potential of the age of fiber optics–and also in maintaining or expanding public-service uses of television, including public TV.”

In letter to President-elect Obama, system leaders suggest projects for stimulus: American Archive, National Public Lightpath broadband plan, Native stations and more, January 2009.

Advocate for National Public Lightpath, Alvarado, sees pubmedia mission in the case for faster broadband, March 2009.

LINKS

Broadband USA, the government’s stimulus portal for information on NTIA and RUS’s pots of money as well as a searchable database of applicants.

Stimulating Broadband, a news site that tracks “federal agency proceedings, state broadband programs, business opportunities, policies and politics” of broadband funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

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