Wireless Funding Accompanies Broadband
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
On Tuesday afternoon I watched on stuttering video (streaming video’s country cousin) as President Obama signed the economic stimulus bill into law. The broadband part is a little quirky, but it’s way better than nothing and it includes a little lagniappe for those of us who live where the cell phone don’t shine. A billion dollars of the broadband funds assigned to the Department of Commerce is to be used for wireless voice communications.
In all, the $780 billion the law, formally titled H.R. 1, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — and known informally as “The Stim” — provides $4 billion to the Department of Commerce and $2.5 billion to the Department of Agriculture to fund the development of broadband and, in the case of Commerce, mobile phone service in rural areas.
The USDA component is a bit dicey, if past performance is any indication. Even Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who seems to have been the champion for funding USDA’s Rural Utilities Service, admits as much. Harkin, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, acknowledged in a media conference call that RUS hasn’t done a good job with the broadband funding included in the 2002 Farm Bill.
Quoted on The Daily Yonder, Harkin said, “Quite frankly the RUS didn’t do it right, I will say that. We had a person in charge that my staff always called ‘Mr. No.’ ‘Mr. No.,’ that’s not his real name, but he always said ‘no’ to putting money into broadband to communities that really needed it.”
Actually, Mr. No didn’t always say no. He said it to the administrative assistant in a small town I know well, but he didn’t say it to suburban towns around Houston, Texas. And the most galling part of USDA’a turning down the place I’ll call Tiny Town is that it’s plunk in the middle of the poorest part of Massachusetts, and the reason the town was disqualified was that its per capita income was too high. Compared to that in the Houston suburbs? I’ll bet.
Perhaps, with Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture, things will be different at RUS. Harkin thinks that’s what will happen. But the other part of the USDA’s handling of the 2002 funding was that its grant application was so long and detailed that it would have taken a staff, not a single part-time administrative assistant, to fill it out. Maybe that’s why the Houston suburbs made out so well.
It might be seen as a conflict of interest, but perhaps some of the broadband funding should be used to assign USDA staff to help the Tiny Towns of the nation with the paperwork necessary to get a grant.
At the Department of Commerce, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) gets $4 billion, of which $1 billion is to expand wireless telephone service. That may not be a big deal in areas where the terrain is essentially flat, but it is a Very Big Deal where high hills and mountains interfere with cell signals, which essentially travel line-of-sight.
Where I live it’s rare to be able to see a mile straight ahead, so mobile phone vendors don’t want to know us. There’s a cell phone tower in my town, put up by a company that makes its living renting tower space to companies like Verizon and AT&T. Mobil phone companies compete on having the fewest dropped calls. As the technology stands, hooking up a town like mine would ruin the vendor’s batting average. We’re going to put broadband equipment on the cell tower.
There’s hope, though, that The Stim may help towns like this one to get cell service. The key, in addition to money, may be found in the white spaces between digital TV signals, once the conversion from analog to digital TV settles down. I’ll have more to say about that subject tomorrow.