IT Firms See Hope in Stimulus

by Jamie Walden  on Monday, Feb. 16, 2009 12:00 am  

Buried in Congress' mammoth $789 billion economic stimulus package is one category of grants that could send a ripple through Arkansas' economy, starting with some homegrown technology firms.

Wireline telecommunications firm Windstream Corp. and wireless Internet provider Aristotle Inc., both of Little Rock, stand to received sizable grants that could significantly boost broadband connectivity in the state.

Arkansas may also stand to get a larger cut than other states because of some prescient work by Connect Arkansas.

Last week members of Congress hustled to reconcile the two versions of the stimulus package. Within the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 exists the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program to propagate broadband Internet access in areas with insufficient or no Internet access. As of Thursday, House and Senate negotiators had reportedly settled on a grant pool of $7.2 billion. The broadband provisions started in the House of Representatives at about $6 billion, while the Senate began with a bid of $9 billion.

As to who will oversee and distribute the funds, Mike Rhoda, senior vice president of government affairs at Windstream, explained that the National Telecommunications & Information Administration is the most likely organization to run point on the broadband program.

However, the Rural Utilities Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, may play a role since both bills specified that 50 percent of the budget must be used to support projects in rural communities.

The Federal Communications Commission could play a disbursing role as well.

A Tale of Two Bills

At first glance, the bills appeared similar with regard to the broadband provisions, but included a few major differences.

Both offered $350 million to develop what the House called a "broadband inventory map."

The House bill would then give half of the remaining $5.65 billion to rural broadband development and the other half to general broadband development. However, with the general broadband pot, the House imposes an important restriction: Exactly $1 billion must be allocated to wireless broadband development. The rest – $1.825 billion – can be used for wireline or wireless.

One of the aspects unique to the Senate bill was a $200 million portion carved out specifically to expand "public computer center capacity, including at community colleges and pubic libraries," the bill said.

The Senate also specified $250 million must be available for grants for "innovative programs to encourage sustainable adoption of broadband service," the bill said. That portion could be used to fund the educational endeavors of organizations such as Connect Arkansas.

 

 

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