Mapping among a host of issues facing broadband projects

A coalition of telecommunications consulting organizations are set to discuss the future of broadband mapping today. The LinkAMERICA Alliance will outline broadband mapping best practices during a presentation today as part of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers’ mid-year conference.

The goal is to give states the knowledge needed to conduct assessments of broadband availability and establish effective tools to implement broadband plans. “The LinkAMERICA Alliance offers a partnership approach with states to generate an effective broadband mapping assessment that not only provides an accurate evaluation of current availability, but also serves as a tool to help states develop and implement a broadband plan that meets the unique concerns of each state,” Gregory L. Rohde, former NTIA administrator and now president of the government affairs firm, e-Copernicus, said in a statement.

A broader effort to leverage broadband technologies has pitted state and federal leaders against one another in deciding who is best able to guide and implement policy. $7.2 billion will be set aside from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) for broadband infrastructure, but who divvies up the money is causing industry and public officials concern.

State officials argue they’re best qualified to decide where the stimulus money goes. The Natioal Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners recently sent a letter to the Obama administration urging cooperation between the Commerce Department, Rural Utility Services, and their state counterparts. “Rather than contracting with Washington, D.C., consultants that lack both the States’ in-depth knowledge about the areas covered and inherent incentive to do the job right, both agencies should structure the program to insure State involvement,” the letter said. The NARUS argues that federal agencies don’t have enough time or staff to esure stimulus broadband funds are used effectively. “I know my state best,” said Rachelle Chong, California Public Utilities Commission head, in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal. “The worst scenario is having one little federal agency reviewing thousands of applications from around the country.”

However, some consumer groups are concerned about parochial interests wasting money. And some industry organizations are worried about too much federal regulation.

Specifically, AT&T and Verizon have joined the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and the U.S. Telecom Association in telling the FCC that if the government has plans to go “beyond the current application of the commission’s broadband policy statement,” they’ll forgo involvement. Currently, the broadband policy is vague, but rumors have it the FCC is looking to extend things like net neutrality.

Meanwhile, Representatives from Florida and Texas are arguing that only states who have completed maps of broadband coverage should be allowed stimulus money. LinkAMERICA seems to be competing in this space against a nonprofit called Connected Nation, who have done broadband maps for Kentucky, West Virginia, Minnesota, Ohio and others. But detractors of the organization say Connected Nation is a corporate front that fails to disclose most of its data and uses inaccurate methods.

Again, the U.S. Telecom Association is against mapping in the interest of time. “Timeliness of awarding grants and beginning construction are key elements” of the Recovery Act, it argued, underscoring the need for urgency “given the fragile state of the nation’s economy and the fact that millions of Americans lack access to core broadband services.”

Time will tell how this issue gets unraveled. Most industry observers see some sort of compromise coming from the states and the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC expects to announce how it will disburse the funds by the end of June, according to Bart Forbes, spokesman for the NTIA.

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