Commerce wants maps showing where broadband is needed

A national map of high-speed Internet availability must be developed to guide billions of dollars in stimulus spending.

The absence of a national map that pinpoints localities that lack high-speed Internet access could hinder the federal government from distributing stimulus funds to expand the service in those areas, lawmakers and federal officials said on Thursday.

While federal agencies wait for accurate mapping, they are moving ahead on outreach initiatives to engage potential service providers and grant recipients.

The recovery act provides $4.7 billion for the Commerce Department to accelerate the rollout of high-speed Internet, or broadband, nationwide. It mandates activities such as providing grants to encourage long-term subscribership, retooling public computer facilities and maintaining a broadband inventory map.

"Some applicants will be ready to go from the beginning of the program while others will need more time to undertake planning activities, develop business plans, map broadband availability and build the necessary partnerships to assure project sustainability. These activities may take some applicants months to complete," Mark Seifert, senior adviser to the assistant secretary of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, told lawmakers at a House oversight hearing.

Congress also gave the Agriculture Department $2.5 billion to extend services to rural areas. At the hearing, convened by the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Communication, Technology and the Internet, David Villano, assistant administrator of USDA's rural development telecommunication program, testified that the department is cooperating with Commerce and the Federal Communications Commission to compile the map.

The subcommittee's ranking member, Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., expressed concerns that the short time frame Congress has given the departments to accomplish their broadband missions may waste taxpayer money. To avoid failure, he urged the relevant agencies to prioritize establishing a comprehensive, nationwide broadband inventory map.

"It's common sense that we should know where to best spend the money before the money is actually spent," he said. Because "nationwide broadband mapping may not be complete before the stimulus requires the funds to be spent" by September 2010, perhaps the agencies should first fund projects in states that have completed maps, Stearns added.

Witnesses representing state and local governments and industry told Stearns that if states start mapping now, they should be able to receive funding before all grants are awarded.

"This [geographic] information that is gathered should be entirely in the public domain," panel member Anthony D. Weiner, D-N.Y., said.

"Openness and transparency have been our guiding principles" in implementation to date, Seifert said in his opening testimony. All public meetings on the broadband programs have been webcast. Those who could not attend virtually or physically were invited to participate via teleconference, and citizens also e-mailed questions.

"This robust approach to public comment will ensure the involvement of taxpayers in the design and implementation of the broadband initiatives in a way that gets recovery act dollars out to the public as quickly as possible to promote job creation and broadband development and deployment," he said. "Moving forward, we will be posting critical funding information, including recipient and fund-use data to accurately track, monitor and report on taxpayer funds."